Do Super Bowl, church and Madonna mix?
If you watched an NFL game this season, you got treated to more player prayer circles, pious hand-holding, pregame head-bowing, heaven-pointing gratitude, sideline Tebowing and Christian references than you'd see in church.
So it's only fair play if you go to church Sunday and a football game breaks out.
Suburban church bulletins boast "Super Bowl" parties aplenty with pitches offering big-screen TV viewing and free food. Deerfield's Holy Cross Parish, which uses Sunday's championship game as a fundraiser for its school and athletic teams, is hosting its "27th Annual Super Bowl Raffle and Party" for adults with paid admission, an open bar and one of those "Big Board" score grids where a person who plunks down money on squares predicting the final score could win $1,500.
The NFL, which takes legal steps to protect its Super Bowl trademark and broadcast rights, fueled a controversy in 2007 when it got into a public spat with the Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis about the church's plans to show the game on a 12-foot screen. Copyright experts debated restrictions on the size of TV screens and the number of speakers allowed. Folks looked for legal loopholes such as hosting "Superb Owl" parties. Politicians vowed to rewrite laws to absolve churches. But the NFL modified its position and now the public relations big picture is more important than the size of the TV screen.
While the NFL asks groups not to charge admission to watch the free broadcast of the game, the league has "no issues" with any religious organizations using the words "Super Bowl," charging for food and beverages, using the event as a fundraiser, delivering a sermon during halftime or showing the game on giant screens.
"Enjoy the day," Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, emails from his Super Bowl headquarters in Indianapolis. "The Super Bowl is all about coming together for football, family, friends and food."
That's the philosophy for the St. John Lutheran Church in Mount Prospect, which has been hosting a Super Bowl party for most of pastor Jeff G. Gavin's 18 years at the church.
"It's an opportunity for fellowship and food," says Gavin, who estimates the party will draw about 50 people, half as many as the total number attending the two earlier church services that day. He figures some people just come for the homemade pizza and friendship and don't care about the game.
But the line between church and football can blur, which often irks devotees on both sides, who don't want to dilute their faith or their football.
"I have long told my sports-law classes at Chicago-Kent that the Super Bowl is a national secular holiday," says Eldon Ham, a lawyer and author who teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "But it is taking on religious overtones, sort of a 'religious event' in and of itself. With churches jumping on the bandwagon, I'm not sure which is the tail and which is the dog these days."
It's almost as if watching the Super Bowl has moved from a church right to a church rite. The boundaries between Christianity and football get further muddied when both factions embrace Madonna, a name that can refer to the "virgin mother of Jesus Christ" or the "Like A Virgin" pop star who is Sunday's halftime entertainer.
"The Super Bowl is kind of like the holiest of holy in America, right?" Madonna says during today's broadcast of her interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. "So, here I am. I'm going to come in halfway between the church experience and I'm going to have to deliver a sermon that's going to have to be very impactful."
You can enjoy faith and football separately or together, but they are not the same, says pastor Gavin, who had to remind his parishioners of that after last year's NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
"Let us remember that God is not a Packers fan or a Bears fan. I don't think God cares about football," Gavin told congregation members after church. "He's a Cubs fan. That's why the Bible always refers to the patient and long-suffering."