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America Deserves an Agnostic All-Pro

There’s still a stigma when performatively masculine men (cough, athletes, cough) speak honestly about their disbelief.

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After Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers got punted out of the playoffs by a dominant 49ers defense last weekend, he probably didn’t get a comforting phone call from his father. Rodgers is somewhat famously — thanks largely to his brother’s turn as The Bachelor — estranged from his family. Fans got a glimpse of why this week after a clip of Rodgers’s appearance on his girlfriend Danica Patrick’s “Pretty Intense” podcast surfaced. The video shows Rodgers saying he struggled to believe in a God that would condemn his children to hell and admitting he no longer attends church.

Not long after the video surfaced, an “unnamed source close to Rodgers’s family” told People that the video was deeply troubling to the NFL star’s relatives. “The family is very dedicated to their Christian faith,” the source explained, adding that the comments were “basically a slap in the face to the fundamentals of who they are. It’s basically him turning his back on everything they have taught him.”

Here’s what Rodgers actually said: “I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet, you know, to a fiery hell. Like, what type of loving, sensitive, omnipresent, omnipotent being wants to condemn most of his beautiful creation to a fiery hell at the end of all this?”

In short, Rodgers explained that going to church isn’t for him. Lest there be any confusion, he’s part of a rapidly growing minority. Between 2007 and 2018 the number of Americans identifying as religiously unaffiliated climbed from 16 to 26 percent according to Pew Research surveys. And this doesn’t make Rodgers anti-religious or even atheist (though it would seemingly confirm his agnosticism). Still, his statement is jarring within the confines of performative,public masculinity and professional sports in particular. “I just want to thank God…” is basically “Hello” in NFLese.

There are two things to talk about here. The first is the very common experience of people who reject their religious upbringings. The second is the specific weirdness of seeing an athlete do it in public.

If you take Twitter as any measure of how the world feels about something (don’t) you’ll find a significantly sized group of randos saying that Rodgers’s family ostracizing him is somehow his fault and makes him a bad person. Embed in that criticism is the idea that by admitting he didn’t like going to church, he somehow admitted to being some kind of amoral monster. This is false. Rodgers, by any definition of morality, is great. Not only is Rodgers a demonstrably charitable person, he’s worked with Best Buddies International, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Jimmy Fund, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the Red Cross, among many others organization, religiosity and goodness ought not to be conflated (Jesus was pretty clear on this when he discussed “meaningless offerings”). 

But the source close the family — and that whole thing is pretty gross — seems to be claiming that faith was more important to Rodgers’s estranged parents than his behavior. They were more offended that he didn’t go to church than happy that he donated a million dollars to help Chico, California, the town he grew up in, recover from a wildfire. Which is just…baffling? And yet, this sort of thing seems to happen a lot. In the current social and political climate, people of all political persuasions (or extremes anyway) want to see the moral receipts. They want proof of goodness in the form of churchgoing or the recitation of a specific script. Rodgers isn’t really there for either viewpoint. In the interview, he’s relaxed and he’s being honest — perhaps more honest than his family might like, but there’s nothing extreme to see here.

Which brings me to the song “Imagine.” When I was a struggling 20-year-old community college student, I spent a memorable weekend night watching a Beatles sound-alike band at a dimly light casino in Phoenix, Arizona. I was old enough to gamble, but not super excited about the prospect so I stuck around and listened to the John Lennon impersonator wend his way toward the lyrical coup de grace: “Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion, too.” But he chickened out and sang “And no oppression, too.”

This guy knew the mostly Christan and/or Mormon crowd in a Phoenix, Arizona casino, wouldn’t nod their head along to the crack about an alternate future in which organized religion. They liked the idea of John Lennon, who was more popular than Jesus, but not what he actually believed. 

No wonder most popular athletes are either enthusiastic or cagey about their religious beliefs. There’s nothing to win and a lot to lose in terms of potential endorsements and jersey sales. But there’s a problem with this as well. Espousing religious beliefs can often come across as espousing bigotry — many denominations are not particularly welcoming to gay people, for starters. So this religious-speak gatekeeps the NFL, locking out a significant number of would-be fans or while, less critically, rubbing a lot of others the wrong way.

Rodgers did a lot of people a kindness by expressing ambivalence and doubt. These things are inclusive — more inclusive than heaven in a lot of formulations.

Later that night in the casino, Fake John Lennon tried to do a Christian-safe version of the song “God,” in which Lennon kicked-off a song with the lyrics “God is a concept/by which we measure/our pain” and went on to avow his disbelief in magic, the I-Ching, the Bible, tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, yoga, kings, Elvis, and The Beatles. It was not good and not worthy of Lennon. (Neither was the wig, but that is beside the point.)

In a sense, we ask modern stars, specifically athletes, to be their own Christian cover bands. People covered the Rodgers story because it was perceived to be a story. He was understood to have gone off-script. Rodgers was supposed to obfuscate or equivocate or genuflect. He did neither of those things. He leaned back in a chair and said he didn’t like the idea of people suffering. If his parents didn’t teach him to think like that, fine. But whoever did should be proud.