“With God on Their Side”, a book edited by Tara Madgalinksi and Timothy J.L. Chandler, presents the framework for the various ways that religion and sport interconnect. Madgalinksi and Chandler argue that sport can be used as a cultural activity that can be utilized by religious groups to strengthen a religious community and enhance identity boundaries of the group. As a result, sport can act as either divisive or integrative of religious groups and the community.
In order to maintain a religious identity created on the basis of a personal dogma, a belief system, texts, traditions, and social structure, distinct boundaries must be established to differentiate between religious groups. This ‘us versus them’ concept is crucial in order to form a community and construct boundaries that unite the group under one common identity (2002: 3) Since rivalry and competition between teams and a sense of camaraderie among teams is central to sport, it can be used by religious groups to maintain these boundaries essential for upholding religious identity. Sporting clubs such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, for instance, serve to promote loyalty to the Christian community and faith through secular sporting events. In addition, sport aids in teaching moral discipline, attracting future converts, and supporting the muscular Christian ethos (2002: 5).
Based on its ability to unite religious groups, sport can act as an ‘agent of division’ by forming independent identities that are exclusive of other religious groups (2002: 9). Sport in Northern Ireland, for example, is not run by secular organizations and is divided on religious lines, which results in tension between Catholic and Protestant groups. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) promotes solely Catholic and Irish heritage through exclusive sports teams (2002: 10). Similarly, soccer teams in Northern Ireland have become a predominantly a Protestant played sport, with only two Catholic professional clubs present in Northern Ireland (2002: 10).
In contrast, sport can work to integrate and unite individuals into a larger community. Through sport, migrants can transition into a new culture, yet they can continue to maintain their own individual religious identity. The Croatian community in Australia uses soccer clubs to maintain their cultural identities and distinguish themselves from other Eastern European communities (2002: 11). Similarly, Croatians rely on Catholicism to differentiate themselves from their Yugoslavian descendents (2002: 11). Through sport, many Croatians amalgamated with the Australian population but were able to continue to maintain their own cultural religious and cultural identities.
Tara Magdalinski and Timothy J.L. Chandler, With God on Their Side, Routledge, 2002, ch. 1 ‘An introduction.’