Monday, June 14, 2010

The World Cup as Global Civil Religion

I'm having a blast right now! In case you haven't been watching ESPN or listening to the news, the World Cup soccer tournament is on every day--a feast of top-class matches every day. I've been tracking the progress of my favorite teams pretty closely (Go USA! Go Netherlands!), but that's gotten me thinking about how to link this crazy passion to the larger question of globalization.

And then, this morning, it hit me: The World Cup is a practice of a growing global civil religion. By "civil religion" I mean what Robert Bellah meant in his classic article of 1967, "Civil Religion in America": "a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity." While Bellah originally drew attention to beliefs, symbols, and rituals in the American political system, he ended this classic article by speculating about the possibility of a "world civil religion," which he thought might be institutionalized in something like the United Nations.

But, like sociologist Frank Lechner (in chapter 3 of his book Globalization), I'm convinced that world soccer tournaments like the World Cup, more than the United Nations, are helping to contribute to what Manfred Steger calls a "global imaginary."
What I mean is that the beliefs, symbols, and rituals of the World Cup contribute to our imagination of ourselves as global people. The every-four-year ritual of this soccer tournament, like the Olympics, helps to construct the image of the whole world assembled together. It enacts a series of liturgical practices that help to institutionalize a global consciousness.

Even as it does this, however, it also inscribes beliefs in nationalistic exclusion. National teams do battle on the field in their traditional colors and war-like pride inevitably accompanies the defeat of a bitter foe. Ask any serious U.S. national soccer team fan their opinions of Mexico or Italy, and you'll get a taste of this.

Even a serious globalist who tries to avoid obnoxious flag-waving, like me, will express distaste for these other teams. So I'm not sure that a global imaginary, with its own practices of civil religion legitimating it, automatically implies multinational harmony. It seems to thrive on nationalism, rather than eliminate it. It may create conflict, rather than reduce it.

While I'm not ready to abandon watching the Cup, I'm pondering how my participation in this civil religion could compromise my prior commitments to the Church's liturgy. Is it just a matter of "balance," or can participating in such practices get in the way of truer and deeper loyalties? Does God want me to turn off ESPN? Would Jesus watch the World Cup?

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