Universities possess an array of tools for influencing American Culture, but one of the more potent tools comes out during the month of March each year: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (March Madness). March Madness is a 68 team, single-elimination tournament that takes place over three weekends in March/April. Teams are placed into a four region bracket and seeded based on a metric known as RPI rankings. Once the bracket is set, hundreds of thousands of fans will download a printable bracket, fill it out, place it on their office doors and cubicles, and enjoy the madness.

Recently, researchers have observed an interesting connection between March Madness and higher education. Success on the hardwood leads to national television exposure, which results in a greater number of student applications for admission. This results in a greater proportion of people being influenced by a respective mission statement of a particular university.

So, what happens when the most successful basketball teams in March Madness represent universities with religious foundations? For example, in this year’s tournament, 20 teams have overtly or historically religious mission statements. The success of each school’s team determines the level of television exposure for their respective academic institutions, as well as for their respective religious mission statements and ideologies. And as Richard Weaver has reminded us, ideas have consequences.

Consider the metrics. With each Brigham Young University win, Google will receive hundreds of thousands of search queries related to the question, “What is Mormonism?” As St. Mary’s wins, curious fans will research their wikipedia page to discover that “the college has garnered national attention for its men’s basketball program” and that their “mission is guided by three traditions: Catholic, Lasallian and Liberal Arts.” College sport success leads to cultural capital.

The Origin of The Theology Hoops Tournament

In 2010 my alma matter, Baylor University, received a favorable seeding in The Tourney and was providentially paired in a region with Notre Dame (Catholic), St. Mary’s (Catholic), Duke (Methodist), and Butler (Disciples). Being a theologian and pastor I reveled at the opportunity for creative smack talk for what I affectionately called the theology bracket of March Madness.  During the Baylor/Duke game I taunted opposing fans with, “Hey Methodists, these Baptists will show you how to dunk.” In my mind, this was no longer a tournament of sports–it became a tournament for the soul of religious education.

After the 2010 tournament, I pondered what it would look like if I created a fantasy tournament bracket each year based solely on religiously oriented universities and colleges? The parameters would be simple:

  • On Selection Sunday (the Sunday prior to the beginning of March Madness), we select the schools with some form of religious orientation.
  • We pit those teams against one another in a single-elimination tournament.
  • We use the tournament process as a lens into the state of religious higher education and its influence on American culture.

The 2012 CaPC Theology Hoops Tournament Challenge

The field this year provided the perfect opportunity to bring out the Theology Hoops Tournament Challenge. Eleven of the teams have historically Catholic backgrounds: Marquette, Georgetown, Creighton, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Saint Louis, Xavier, Notre Dame, Iona, Loyola (MD), and St. Bonaventure. Nine of the other teams have historically Protestant or Sectarian backgrounds: Duke (Methodist) Baylor (Baptist), Temple (Baptist), Vanderbilt (Methodist-Episcopal), Harvard (Unitarian), Brigham Young (Mormon), Belmont (Baptist), Davidson (Presbyterian), and  Lehigh (Episcopalian). I added two state schools (Murray State and San Diego State) both to round out the fields and as a subtle reminder that even secularism is a theological worldview, lest the state schools think that this tournament is about religion verses science. For good measure, I averaged the RPI rankings of the Catholic side (36) and ensured that my two state school selections helped keep the other side near 36.

Historically speaking, Catholic schools have done well to promote a life of the mind as a vital component of the overall Christian spiritual growth process. Thus, I organized them into the aptly labeled the Christian Education Division. As historian Mark Noll has reminded us, the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind to speak of.  Furthermore, the twentieth century has witnessed Protestant division on the issue of modern theology and the value of scientific inquiry. Thus, I have labeled the the other side the Christian/ Education Division, which affords numerous humorous plays on words. Some of the schools (Belmont and Baylor) have historically emphasized the Christian, rather than the education aspect (although both are catching up). The other schools (see Harvard) have emphasized education rather than the Christian part. Other schools (BYU) are educators but not yet Christian.


How Can I Participate in The Challenge?

I’m glad you asked.

  1. You may download and fill out the 2012 CaPC Theology Tournament Bracket. Because there are 22 teams, we had a 4-team play in series in each division whose winner will enter into the 8-team regional match-ups. The winners of each division will play for the Theology National Championship and will reveal whose religious higher education is most influential in America in 2012.
  2. Submit your bracket selections via the comments section. For example, with the Gonzaga v. St. Mary’s match-up you may write, “Gonzaga over St. Mary’s.”
  3. Our tournament progresses alongside March Madness. I will update our bracket results every week.
  4. Results will be tallied in the following order of importance: (A) Actual wins in March Madness, (B) tally of reader comments, (C) CaPC writer picks. Thus, if Baylor and Harvard (the 3/7 match-up in week 3) both win their opening round games, I will use reader comments to determine the winner. If reader comments are even, CaPC writers will determine the winner of a match-up.
  5. Remember: The goal of the Theology Hoops Tournament is to provide an opportunity for reflection on the nature of religious higher education in America. That teams made the tournament reflects the diversity of religious education in American culture. That teams win provides further opportunities for examination into their unique educational mission statements.

Won’t you join me in participating in the 2012 CaPC Theology Hoops Tournament?


  1. What an interesting idea. I’ll have to read the instructions again, because i think i got a little lost three-quarters of the way through.

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