The Christian response to March Madness

At First Things, Valparaiso University professor Gilbert Meilaender argues that colleges serious about their Christian identity ought to skip NCAA tournament play on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This argument is, in and of itself, not especially interesting. However, Meilaender makes an interesting connection:

Fast forward to March 2015: The state of Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), in the midst of that year’s March Madness, offered ­obeisance to the great gods of inclusivity and diversity, issuing not-very-veiled threats to remove its headquarters and future events from Indianapolis. Nor was this the first time the NCAA had used its considerable corporate heft to try to shape public opinion on social issues.

Look forward now to March 2016: The tournament’s first full weekend of play, in which sixty-four teams are reduced to (the sweet) sixteen, will take place from Thursday, March 17, to Sunday, March 20. The second weekend of play (March 24–27) will reduce the Sweet Sixteen first to the Elite Eight and then to the Final Four, who will have to wait yet another week before the tourney is finished and a champion crowned. True fans immerse themselves in the entire tourney, of course, but they may have different opinions about which weekend is most exciting. The second full weekend happens to be my own favorite. By that time the remaining sixteen teams are in large part the cream of the crop, and the competition is intense.

But there is a case to be made this year for suggesting that Christians should pass on this weekend—and perhaps on the entire 2016 tourney. Their God, after all, is not the NCAA’s god. And the dates for the games on the second full weekend should concern us. They are March 24 (Maundy Thursday), March 25 (Good Friday), March 26 (Holy Saturday), March 27 (Easter). Could it be that other things—things more earthshaking than March Madness—should occupy our attention in that span of days?

(Emphasis supplied.) We will have to think on this connection a little bit, since it seems that Meilaender’s point is that at least in part because the NCAA weighed into Indiana’s RFRA debate, Christians ought to recognize the holiness of Holy Week by refraining from tournament play.

To that end, we have a couple of observations. First of all, Indiana’s RFRA—indeed, all RFRA-type statutes—are in some regard incompatible with the rights of Christ and Christ’s Church. The State does not have a duty to protect all religions; it has a duty to protect and promote the true religion. Now, Aquinas tells us that permitting other religions’ to persist may well be justifiable, particularly if the evils arising from suppressing the religion outstrip the evils created by the religion itself. For example, no one would suggest that suppressing a benign sect such as Zen Buddhism ought to be a particularly high priority for a rightly ordered state.

But such toleration does not require, nor could it require, adopting a general position that all religion no matter what is supposed to be protected and favored by the state. Such a position would be the inadmissible error of indifferentism. Last summer, The Josias made available a translation of Pius IX’s allocution, Maxima quidem, in which that great pope said,

In addition, they dare to deny any activity of God in men and in the world. And they rashly assert that human reason, without any reference to God, is the only judge of truth and falsehood, good and evil, and that human reason is a law unto itself, and suffices by its own natural power for the care of the good of persons and peoples. But since they perversely dare to derive all truths of religion from the inborn force of human reason, they assign to man a certain basic right, from which he can think and speak about religion as he likes, and give such honor and worship to God as he finds more agreeable to himself.

(Emphasis supplied.) It was this sharp rebuke in Maxima quidem that formed the basis of one of Pius’s definitive condemnations of indifferentism in Syllabus (#15). Thus, while we agree with Meilaender that the NCAA took a stance incompatible with orthodox Christianity, we cannot agree that RFRA is a permissible expression of orthodox Christianity. Indeed, it is not. It is steeped in error.

And this leads us to our second point: does the NCAA’s stance on RFRA actually have anything to do with whether or not Christian schools’ teams should participate in the games scheduled during Holy Week? Let us assume that the NCAA opposed RFRA for the right reason (i.e., that it is a product of erroneous indifferentism) or, less fantastically, that the NCAA supported RFRA; would it make playing basketball on Good Friday any less unseemly?