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Back in the 1990s, a joke about a prominent politician went, “His religion is so private, he won’t even impose it on himself.” Recent events have me wondering if we’re heading to a time when the joke no longer makes sense because people seem to expect people not to live by their convictions. The source of my misgivings is, of all places, the sports pages. The past few weeks have seen two examples of integrity that are increasingly rare in our win-at-all-costs sports scene.
The first is the story of Joel Northrup. He’s the homeschooled sophomore from Iowa who defaulted rather than wrestle a girl, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup had a 35-4 record going into the state championships and was one of the favorites in his weight class. By following his Christian beliefs, Northrup forfeited his chance at what is in Iowa a really big deal.
The second story involves the Brigham Young University basketball team and its best big man Brandon Davies. Less than two weeks before the selections for the NCAA tournament, the school suspended Davies for violating its honor code. Specifically, he was suspended for having premarital relations with his girlfriend. As with Northrup, integrity cost BYU dearly. The Cougars were routed in their first game after Davies was suspended, and they may have lost their chance at a number-one seat in the tournament.
At a time when the sports page reads like a police blotter and when coaches regularly violate NCAA rules, you would think that these examples of integrity would be applauded. Yeah, right. Northrup was maligned for his refusal to wrestle Herkelman. Rick Reilly of ESPN called his decision “wrong-headed,” and compared his religious objections to citing religion to justify “[poking] the elderly with sharp sticks.” I’m not making that up.
BYU was, if anything, even more abused. While some commentators applauded the Cougars for their integrity, for many others it was just an opportunity to say, “Well, the Mormons sure are weird.” They had to endure questions about whether an athlete’s “sex life” was “fair game” or whether their treatment of Davies, who is black and a Mormon, was somehow “racist.” Please!
Interestingly, the ostensible “victims,” Cassy Herkelman and Davies, didn’t see themselves as such. Herkelman and her family have praised Northrup for abiding by his principles. And Davies confessed his violation to BYU authorities and was allowed to cut down the net after a recent BYU victory.
The only victim in these stories is the truth, which brings me back to that joke from the 1990s. The real objection to public displays of faith isn’t the fear that somehow believers will “impose” their faith on everyone else; it’s an objection to their imposing their faith on themselves! In other words, what gets to critics is that people actually have standards that they are willing to live by, regardless of the personal cost. When someone behaves with integrity, especially integrity rooted in faith, it makes the relativism and moral skepticism of our age look bad. It shouts, “Things don’t have to be the way they are!” When people demonstrate integrity, it makes it difficult for others to rationalize their own corruption and decay. They can’t have that, so they pull out the sharp sticks.