Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

As we have come to expect, this past weekend of March Madness provided viewers with upsets, upstarts, and beat-downs and left us in eager anticipation for the Sweet 16 — the coming weekend when the 16 teams get whittled down to the Final 4 teams.

For our interests at CaPC, the past weekend also provided an honest look into religious higher education in America and our bracket got whittled down to the Elite 8 Theology Hoops teams.

Let’s review the rules of our tournament:

  1. Wins in March Madness matter to our tournament. The further you go in one, the further you go in the other.
  2. In the case of a tie (where both teams win or lose in the same March Madness round) the tie-breaker looks to reader comments and then to CaPC writer picks.
  3. The goal of our bracket is to provide an opportunity for reflection on the nature of religious higher education in America.

Recapping the Past Weekend of March Madness:

As I mentioned in an elsewhere, several religious institutions played each other in the March Madness tournament.

  • Vanderbilt beat Harvard in the first round and lost to Wisconsin in the second round.
  • Iona lost to BYU, who lost to Marquette, who beat Murray State.
  • Lehigh beat Duke and then lost to Xavier, who beat Notre Dame
  • Davidson lost to Louisville.
  • Temple lost to South Florida.
  • Saint Louis beat Memphis and lost to Michigan State.
  • Georgetown beat Belmont and lost to North Carolina State, which also beat San Diego State.
  • Baylor beat South Dakota State and Colorado.
  • Creighton beat Alabama and lost to North Carolina.
  • Gonzaga beat West Virginia and lost to Ohio State, who also beat Loyola-Maryland.

Six things I take away from the first weekend:

  1. Don’t call it a comeback. 10 religious higher education teams made it to the round of 32 (Baylor, Xavier, Lehigh, Saint Louis, Murray State, Marquette, Georgetown, Creighton, Gonzaga, and Vanderbilt). That means that roughly 1/3 of the best 32 teams in America have religious affiliation.  Or to put it in national perspective — of the 345 Division 1 NCAA hoops teams in America, 10 of the top-level schools have religious affiliation.  Want to know one of the reasons why the secularization thesis has been called into question in recent years?  Look to March Madness.
  2. Mainline Churches can’t rely on reputation in order to be relevant today. Just as 2-seed Duke (Methodist), who lost to 15-seed Lehigh.  Duke played with expectations but failed to deliver.  And as historian (and Baylor professor) Thomas Kidd has observed recently, “The American Methodists’ experience of decline is a cautionary tale for all churches, including conservative ones.”  Are you listening Baylor? Don’t get too comfy in that top-15 spot.  Keep fighting the good fight.
  3. The fight for the soul of the American university comes down to the play of Baylor, Xavier, and Marquette — the lone religious teams in the tourney. Full disclosure, I am pulling for, and praying for, the Highlighters.
  4. Mormonism is an emerging force in America, as Iona found out. BYU came back from a 25-point deficit to topple Iona in the first round playoff match. Catholicism may be able to throw numbers at it, as Marquette proved, but don’t sleep on Mormonism. Youtube ads and a GOP candidate symbolize this push for more legitimacy in the American religious ethos.
  5. Is Greensboro, NC an epicenter for Christian life in America?  This region featured four religious higher institutions in the opening rounds of March Madness, two Protestant (Duke, Lehigh) and two Catholic (Xavier, and Notre Dame).  This is not likely as Greensboro’s church community is 80-ish% Protestant and 11% Catholic.  Furthermore, only 47% of the town is religiously affiliated, well-below the 50% average for the USA.  Waco, TX on the other hand…
  6. Is Louisville, KY the epicenter for pluralism in America? This region featured two and a half religious higher institutions (Marquette, BYU, Murray State) and had its hometown team (Louisville) beat another religious higher institution (Davidson).  After all, The Center for Interfaith Relations is located in Louisville and hosts a Festival of Faiths each year to celebrate pluralistic world-views.