As you've probably noticed, Christian faith is not among the ideals touted by the unblushingly idealistic Olympics. You may also have noticed that the official language of the games is French (even though French is the primary language for only 1.2 percent of the world's people). These two observations are related.

A Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, instituted the modern games in 1896. He touted them as a celebration of "Olympism," a "school of nobless and moral purity" that he considered to be "humanity's superior religion." Christians may not have been thrilled with the new competition's soul, but they admired its body. They began to take unprecedented interest in sport, though with ideals quite different from de Coubertin's in mind.

While boundless optimism about technological progress and the brotherhood of man motivated many at the close of the nineteenth century, anxiety slipped into Protestant churches. Leaders lamented that the church had become too feminized: Fanny Crosby's hymns permeated morning worship, pastel pictures of Jesus smiled up from religious publications, women pressed for positions of denominational leadership, and men accounted for an ever smaller percentage of church attendees.

Church leaders also worried about the decline of physical labor facilitated by industrialization, because they considered physical vigor a reflection of moral and spiritual health. Efficient but flabby workers were considered unfit to model the gospel either at home or on the mission field. Racial concerns played a part as well. America's white, Protestant elite feared the growing physical and numerical strength of dark-skinned laborers and Catholic European immigrants. Protestants needed to beef up.

American Christians launched ...

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