In April 2015, Springfield, Missouri was home to a successful repeal of just-instituted LGBT anti-discrimination protections. It was hardly surprising given the tenor set by Missouri’s top political leaders at the January 2015 Missouri Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. The event, which showcased heads of the MO National Guard (in uniform, leading prayers) boasted as a keynote speaker the CEO of the biggest evangelical sports ministry on earth, the (anti-gay) Fellowship of Christian Athletes. First, some context:
Journalist Tom Krattenmaker’s 2010 book Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players Into Preachers (link to PDF of interview with author) brought some long-needed attention to the immense effort that conservative (and radical) Christians have spent on evangelizing coaches and star players in American sports. Krattenmaker’s book encompassed both tacit endorsement – “Its leading-edge innovators and pioneers are in the midst of reinventing the Christian presence in sports… I don’t know how far they’ll get. I wish them well.” – and also recognition that,
“The faith being dispensed to our sports stars, and from them to the public, frequently comes with a set of conservative cultural and political views that are frequently one and the same as the agenda of the Christian right movement–anti-abortion, anti-gay, and intent on publicly asserting the superiority of theologically conservative Christianity over other religious beliefs.”
Krattenmaker’s characterization was accurate enough up to the last claim, that those dispensing faith to our sports stars are “theologically conservative Christians”. Although the big evangelical sports ministries have varied theological roots, they are increasingly permeated and colonized by a radical form of dominionist, charismatic Christianity linked both to the leadership of The Fellowship, which hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, and the New Apostolic Reformation, whose apostles and prophets have been in the vanguard of exporting US evangelical anti-LGBT hatred from Uganda to Russia.
(As I’ll presently explore, in an upcoming report, the entity which hosts the National Day of Prayer, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, is dominated by the NAR’s apostles and prophets)
Prayer Breakfasts, at both the state and national level, have become one major vector through which the evangelical right, closely tied to the Republican Party, builds influence and extends cultural hegemony. This year’s National Day of Prayer celebration featured not only a two-star Air Force general attesting in uniform to his faith in Jesus (an appearance challenged by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) but also the head of Campus Crusade For Christ’s Washington-based “Christian Embassy”, which evangelizes on Capital Hill and in the Pentagon.
Keynote speaker this year, at the 2015 Missouri Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, was the CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Les Steckel – whose organization reported revenue of over $92 million dollars in 2013.
During his years as an NFL coach, Steckel was known for his aggressive promotion of the tactic of “cut blocking” or “cutting”, in which football players target their opponent’s knees. Of Steckel’s new vocation since 2005, with the FCA, a Sports Illustrated feature story on Steckel observed, “Given that role, you might wonder if Steckel has any regrets about the years he spent urging techniques that could maim opponents. He does not. ‘God loves us just the way we are,’ says Steckel, 66, ‘but at the same time He does require excellence. And in the NFL, performance is ultimate.’ “
Steckel’s first proposition, that “God loves us just the way we are”, does not seem to square well with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ LGBT-hostile policies; for example, as illustrated by a North Carolina FCA application form for middle school students who wish to become FCA “Huddle Leaders” at FCA camp retreats:
“God desires His children to lead pure lives of holiness. The Bible is clear in teaching on sexual sin including sex outside of marriage and homosexual acts. Neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage nor any homosexual act constitute an alternative lifestyle acceptable to God.”
The form then asks applicants, “Will you conform to the FCA’s Sexual Purity Policy?’ and follows up with,
“As a Huddle Leader, I will be accountable to the other Huddle Leaders, Camp staff and FCA staff. I understand that if I am found being involved in a lifestyle that does not conform to the FCA’s Sexual Purity Statement, or break my commitment to living a drug-, alcohol-, and tobacco-free life, that it means that I will need to step down from my leadership position with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”
As a simple Google search shows, this form is used by FCA chapters throughout the country.
The FCA has come under scrutiny for its anti-gay positions before – most notably through a 2011 Equality Matters special report tracing funding, from the Chick-Fil-A funded nonprofit the Winshape Foundation, to anti-gay groups. As Equality Matters noted, the FCA has in recent years promoted a “pray away the gay” approach and a FCA report on the group’s 2010 National College Conference claimed the occurrence of divinely-powered changes in sexual orientation at the event, with a FCA program director stating,
“These athletes were immersed in an environment unlike that of any other FCA Camp or conference. God freed some people from homosexuality, sexual sins, addictions and even ushered newcomers into His Kingdom. It was truly a humbling experience.”
Following the Equality Matters coverage, those FCA website stories vanished from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes website (links are to archive.org copies). But the FCA.org website currently features a 2014 jeremiad from Ron Brown – who recently finished a 24 year long history of coaching football at the University of Nebraska (with a four year break in that career during which Brown served as the state director of the Nebraska FCA). In his FCA op-ed Brown – who in 2012 was elected to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Champions – takes no prisoners, writing,
“I’m sick of soft, spineless Christianity. Aren’t you? Jude was. He laid it on thick, but it was appropriate and necessary. Jude knew Satan had certain people creeping into the church who were denying the sole authority of Christ and perverting the grace of God into sensuality, much like those in Sodom and Gomorrah who perverted God’s design for sexual intimacy (between a married man and woman) to homosexual misconduct (which God refers to as unnatural).
This sinful mindset exists today as homosexuality and sex outside of marriage have crept into the church’s thinking, often labeling mature Christians standing firmly for Biblical truth as unloving intolerants.”
Despite Ron Brown’s claim to be upholding orthodox Christianity, the previously mentioned FCA “Huddle Leader” application form seems to indicate FCA cleaves to a type of fundamentalist and charismatic sort of Christianity that’s more characteristic of radical emerging streams of the faith than of traditional Protestant or Catholic denominational Christianity.
The form’s fundamentalist Statement of Faith declares, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God”. But earlier in the document we find also a statement that seems to indicate FCA support for faith healing (including, presumably, the casting out of demons) but which advises FCA members to refrain from such practices because they can be distracting (or perhaps more accurately because they are divisive – charismatic practices are theologically controversial to many Christians):
“Speaking in tongues, healings, prophesying and baptism are a part of the Christian experience for many people; however, the FCA chooses not to focus on them but on the basics of the gospel of Christ. Do you agree to keep the focus on the gospel of Christ and not on these or other denominational issues?”
FCA is not the only international neo-fundamentalist organization with charismatic ties that asks it members to refrain from speaking in tongues or other charismatic practices: another such ministry is Bill Bright’s 1/2 billion dollar a year Campus Crusade For Christ which, as first exposed in a May 20, 2013 Truth Wins Out special report, has worked to spread eliminationist anti-gay propaganda across the continent of Africa.
Campus Crusade’s Athletes in Action minstry can be found partnering with FCA, such as in the 2010 presentation of a special award to college basketball coach Don Meyer. But that is hardly a surprise given their common sources of funding:
One of the biggest funders of FCA has been the National Christian Foundation, which according to NCF’s 2013 990 tax form gave over $2.3 million dollars to FCA entities. NCF has also been one of the biggest funders of Campus Crusade – hardly a surprise given Bill Bright’s close historic partnership with the neo-fundamentalist leaders and philanthropists associated both with The Gathering – which, as Twocare.org has covered, is probably the biggest source of funding for the ongoing culture wars – and The Fellowship, which hosts the National Prayer Breakfast and has been accused, by journalist Jeffrey Sharlet, of helping to inspire Uganda’s ongoing anti-LGBT rights crusade.
Looping back around, sitting on the director’s boards of both the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the National Christian Foundation is James B. “Buck” McCabe, executive vice president, finance and chief financial officer for Chick-fil-A, Inc. As Twocare.org has chronicled in its ongoing project The National Christian Foundation Anti-LGBT Funding Encyclopedia, NCF is very likely the biggest source of evangelical anti-LGBT financing on earth.