God won't be playing favorites in the Super Bowl

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

God did not buy squares in the Super Bowl pool. Probably doesn't have a favorite team, won't tinker with the score.

Some people might feel differently. According to an annual survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of U.S. citizens agree that "God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event," and there's no sporting event on our continent bigger than this one.

Still, says pastor and sports fan Jeff Nelson, "I hope and pray that God has bigger fish to fry than the outcome of the game this Sunday."

And no, says professor and Christian ethics expert James Tubbs Jr., a sporting event is not a place where "God's intervening in history comports with our understanding of divine providence."

They were both surprised to hear the results of the survey, which has held statistically steady for three years. Furthermore, they would beg to differ with the 26 percent — albeit gently.

As well as anyone, they understand that it's not wise, kind, practical or effective to dismiss someone's religious conviction.

They can also get just as swept up as the rest of us in Hail Mary passes and miraculous comebacks.

"You can't help but love a moment like Russell Wilson against the Packers," says Nelson, who shepherds Redford Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

Having floundered for most of the game, Seattle's quarterback engineered an astonishing rally against Green Bay to put his team in the Super Bowl against New England, then burst into tears.

"I believe God prepared me for this situation," Wilson said, and Nelson, 43, will sign off on that — even though he's a Wisconsin native and Packers fan.

"But if you're Judeo-Christian and you take the Bible seriously," Nelson says, "God is never on the side of the winner. He's always hanging out with those who have lost."

At least Lions fans can cling to that.

What's right and wrong

Tubbs, 61, who chairs the religious studies department at the University of Detroit Mercy, says he understands the Lambeau Leap between serious biblical study and the impression that God oversees touchdowns.

"They're saying God influences sporting events," he surmises, "because their assumption is that all of life is under God's ultimate control."

The fumble comes with the notion that "because God has the ability to control, God takes the prerogative to control."

Rather, he continues, "There's a much wider consensus that God has created us with freedom, and that includes the freedom to win or lose."

With sports, Nelson says, there's the added expectation that winning and losing be done fairly: whosoever is better on a specific day shalt triumph.

"That taps right into the religious sense of ethics," he points out, and makes it almost personal when a baseball player inflates himself with steroids or the Patriots use deflated footballs.

"Maybe that's why we believe God has a hand in it," Nelson says. "We want to believe in fairness."

A blessing — or a curse?

The scientifically weighted survey of 1,012 adults was designed and conducted by a nonprofit, nonpartisan polling service that focuses on the melding of culture, religion and politics.

Ten percent of the respondents completely agreed that God intercedes in games, says Dan Cox, the institute's research director, and 16 percent mostly agreed.

While the next block of 20 percent "mostly disagree," that suggests they at least give the idea a trace of credibility.

What's unclear is which games God is credited with affecting. Little League? High school? Only games important enough to be televised?

"That would be interesting to explore," Cox says. "Maybe next year."

Last year, he asked whether fans felt their team had been cursed.

Twenty-five percent said yes, he reports, while 74 percent said it had not.

Lions fans said, "C'mon ... Do you really need to ask?"