Summer 2024

Can Politics, Faith and Athletics Mix?

Some Christians are familiar with the faith of our nation’s Founding Fathers like Samuel Adams, Benjamin Rush and John Jay.

They weren’t afraid to express their faith, like when Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Father of the American Revolution, wrote this while Governor of Massachusetts in a Proclamation of a Day of Fast on March 20, 1797: “That wars may cease in all the earth, and that the confusions that are and have been among nations may be overruled by promoting and speedily bringing on that holy and happy period when the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be everywhere established, and all people everywhere willingly bow to the sceptre of Him who is Prince of Peace.”

Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and ratifier of the U.S. Constitution, was equally as bold. In the 1798 publication of Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, he said this: “Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy…I know there is an objection among many people to teaching children doctrines of any kind, because they are liable to be controverted. But let us not be wiser than our Maker. If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into all the world would have been unnecessary. The perfect morality of the gospel rests upon the doctrine which, though often controverted has never been refuted: I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.”

Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and President of the American Bible Society, felt a need to tell people about Christ and was quoted as saying this on page 379 in the book, In God We Trust – The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers: “By conveying the Bible to people thus circumstanced, we certainly do them a most interesting kindness. We thereby enable them to learn that man was originally created and placed in a state of happiness, but, becoming disobedient, was subjected to the degradation and evils which he and his posterity have since experienced. The Bible will also inform them that our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; that this Redeemer has made atonement ‘for the sins of the whole world,’ and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy has opened a way for our redemption and salvation; and that these inestimable benefits are of the free gift and grace of God, not of our deserving, nor in our power to deserve.”

But what about today’s politicians? Do they measure up? Are they merely trying to win your vote by inserting religious jargon or voting for causes that Christians will support, or are they truly Christians who desire others to know Christ?

We likely won’t know completely until we get to heaven because as I Kings 8:39 tells us, only God knows the hearts of all men.

What we do know, though, is that there have been men, recently, who were bold in what they said concerning their relationship with Christ, men who were also once incredible athletes.

So with the inauguration this month of the President of the United States and the swearing in of Congressional members in the House and Senate, institutions set up by our Founding Fathers, Sports Spectrum takes a look at six athletes turned politicians who have shown a deep faith in Christ.

Gerald Ford

People know that Gerald Ford was the 38th U.S. President, who served from 1974-77, that he took over for embattled U.S. President Richard Nixon and that Ford was the only person to serve as U.S. President and Vice President without being elected.

But most probably don’t know that Ford was also a star football player at the University of Michigan, helping the Wolverines to undefeated seasons and national titles in 1932 and 1933. His senior year in 1934, he also played in the East-West All-Star game and with the Collegiate All-Stars in an exhibition against the Chicago Bears. His jersey, No. 48, was retired in 1994.

He also had a deep faith in Christ. In 1977, Ford expressed this during a commencement address at his son’s graduation from seminary.

“If the experience of the presidency itself led me to a greater reliance upon God, a greater appreciation of my religion, so did some of the critical events of those two and a half years in the White House. I remember particularly well when in September of 1974, just a few weeks after I had taken office, Betty had her bout with cancer. It was during that time that we came to a much deeper understanding of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At a time when human weakness and human frailty was such a real part of our lives, we were able to see clearly for the first time what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Having been through that experience, we found that we were better able to give comfort and hope to others in their time of pain.

“The White House—those years—also taught us a dramatic lesson in the mortality of man. Twice I escaped an assassin’s bullet, and twice I came to understand in vivid terms another message of Paul, that we should trust not in ourselves but in God, who delivered us from death and preserves us still.”

Jim Ryun

Jim Ryun is remembered most by track and field enthusiasts for becoming the first high school runner to break four minutes in the mile in 1964 (only five have ever accomplished this feat), for making the Olympic team as a high school junior in 1964, and two more Olympic teams after that (1968, 1972), for holding the world record in the mile from 1966-1975 (the last American to do so), and for gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times, including being named Sportsman of the Year in 1966 when he set world records in the mile and half mile.

He also won five NCAA individual titles and a team title (1969) at Kansas, set world records in five other events and won a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

In between his retirement from the sport in 1974 and his induction into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980, he and his wife, Anne, became Christians through the witness of friends.

“I wanted the peace that only comes through Jesus Christ,” he said.

He later served Kansas’ Second district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996-2007.

Despite his athletic success, many on the outside of the sport only remember him for never winning a gold medal (especially in 1968 when he was favored) and for his being tripped up in the 1972 Olympics and failing to qualify for the final.

He once asked a reporter for Sports Spectrum, “How many gold medalists do you know? Maybe one. Probably none. But how many people do you know who have had some sort of disappointment in their lives? How many people do you know who have tried and not won? Because of what happened in my life, I identify with people. I can tell them that no disappointment is so big that God can’t heal it.”

Steve Largent

In 1976, Steve Largent was a fourth-round pick in the NFL Draft (117th overall) after a stellar All-American career as a receiver at Tulsa. He spent the next 14 years with the Seattle Seahawks, retiring with eight All-Pro selections and the holder of all major NFL receiving records, including most career receptions (819), most career receiving yards (13,089), and most career touchdown catches (100).

In 1995, he received the ultimate football honor by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

One instance during the 1982 NFL strike showed where Largent stood as a Christian. Along with quarterback Jim Zorn, another Christian, Largent ended his participation in the strike referring to Matthew 5:36-37, and saying, “your word is your bond.”

“My purpose in playing is to represent Christ,” Largent once told Sports Spectrum. “And my motivation is to be the very best I can be. That involves preparing myself physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally to be a great football player.”

He used that same focus in a political career that spanned from 1994 until 2002, serving Oklahoma’s First district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“My vision for the future really begins by glancing to our past, our heritage,” Largent told Sports Spectrum when he was first elected. “Our country was founded on biblical principles. Let’s return to those principles: a strong work ethic, self-responsibility, personal accountability in strong families, and a belief in the sovereignty of the Lord. What I’m talking about is a spiritual revival, not necessarily a legislative revival. We can make all sorts of laws here in Washington, but we can’t legislate a person’s heart.”

In 2004, Largent and J.C. Watts were named two of the top 10 athletes who became politicians by CBC Sports Online of Canada

J.C. Watts

After J.C. Watts led the University of Oklahoma to back-to-back Big Eight Championships and Orange Bowl victories in the 1979 and 1980 seasons, he went to the Canadian Football League where he helped the Ottawa Rough Riders to the 1981 Grey Cup title game. After playing for Ottawa from 1981-1985, he joined the Toronto Argonauts for one season before retiring in 1986.

He has been a youth minister and was also ordained as a Baptist minister in 1993 before serving a six-year term with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (1990-1995) and eight years with the U.S. House of Representatives (1995-2003) for Oklahoma’s Fourth district.

In 1994, when he was running for office, he told voters, “Friends, we live in the greatest land on the face of this earth. People fight to get to America, the land of opportunity. The key to sustaining the magic of America is family, community, morality, responsibility, strong education, and bringing God back into the mainstream of things.”

During his early days in the U.S. House of Representatives, he told Sports Spectrum that the Bible is “the only consistent social policy we’ve had for the past 2,000 years. We cannot continue to slap God in the face and totally ignore the Word of God and remain a great country.”

His background as an elite athlete prepared him for politics.

“My athletic experience was a very good teacher,” he told Sports Spectrum then. “It taught me endurance, patience, delayed gratification. And being a quarterback teaches you to have a tough skin. Regardless of what people are saying, if you stay focused, things will work out. Athletics teaches you that you can lose without being a loser. When you lose the game, the people are booing, and Satan says, ‘Where is your God?’ My faith says, ‘Lord, I don’t know what You’re trying to teach me, but I trust Your heart.’”

Kevin Johnson

After Kevin Johnson ended his college career at Cal as the school’s all-time leader in assists, steals and scoring (eventually becoming the first men’s basketball player to have his jersey, No. 11, retired), he embarked on a memorable NBA career after being drafted in the first round, first in a short stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers (1987-88) and then with the Phoenix Suns (1988-1998, 2000).

During his career, he was named an NBA All-Star three times, and played with the 1994 NBA Dream Team that won the World Championship. Along with having his No. 7 jersey retired by Phoenix, he joined an elite group in several categories. He was one of only three NBA players (along with legends Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson) to average at least 20 points and 12 assists in a season, and one of only three (along with Magic and the legendary Oscar Robertson) to average at least 20 points and 20 assists per game for three straight years.

His guide, since accepting Christ as a senior at Sacramento High School, has been the Bible.

“There’s a verse in the Bible that tells us there will be many who go down the road that’s wide and leads to destruction,” Johnson told Sports Spectrum in the middle of his NBA career. “It’s the common route and where most people go. But the narrow road, the road of righteousness, very few people are going to choose that one. That’s the different road.”

Part of that different road wasn’t just his faith, but it was focusing his energy from a professional athlete to a venture into politics.

That road began in 2008 when he was elected as mayor of Sacramento. He was re-elected to a second term on June 5, 2012.

“If you walk in the right direction, if you put your feet on solid ground and focus on Christ, then your life will be very solid and fulfilling.”

Heath Shuler

Heath Shuler once told Sports Spectrum, “There is nothing in life more important than the Lord and His Word.”

That would be something Shuler would rely on a lot as he made his decisions on where to go to college, when to enter the NFL Draft and when he decided to venture into politics.

Before being taken third overall in the NFL Draft’s first round by the Washington Redskins, Shuler had made a quick name for himself in the college football world.

When Tennessee was still a power in the SEC, Shuler (who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1993) was busy passing his way into the school’s record books. He left school holding nearly every passing record in history, most of which were later eclipsed by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.

Shuler’s NFL career was short-lived, though. He was with Washington from 1994 to 1996, the New Orleans Saints in 1997 and with the Oakland Raiders during camp in 1998 before succumbing to a second foot injury that ended his career.

“At that point you go through some ups and downs,” Shuler told Sports Spectrum in 2011 as he recalled what he was going through during that time. “You wonder, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But when you have difficult times, you know it’s about what God wants—it’s not about what we want.”

On election night in 2006, when he was first elected, Shuler was bold in his proclamation of who He served: “I just want to give my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ all the praise for this.”

He would represent North Carolina’s 11th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 through 2012.

“If I would have questioned my injury and my career in the NFL, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things I set out to do. If you maintain your faith and trust, everything else falls in line.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor at Sports Spectrum magazine.