DEL CITY, Okla., May 2, 2005 -- Watch a video of some of America's national high school cheerleading competitions and you might think you've accidentally tuned in MTV. Or maybe even exotic dancers. Texas legislator Al Edwards was recently so unsettled by what he saw at one cheerleading event featuring nubile teens that he proposed a state law to end "sexually suggestive" performances at athletic events. "It's just too sexually oriented," he said, "the way they're shaking their behinds and breaking it down."
Now there is an alternative: Christian cheerleading -- where wholesomeness is the theme, "spirit" includes the "Holy Spirit" and the ultimate judge of each routine is believed to be God himself.
"We believe that God gives us the talents and abilities that we have," says John Blake, a national coordinator for the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders, the nation's largest faith-based cheerleading organization. "We think that doing the sports, doing cheerleading is a way that we can honor and worship God."
And that means no lewd dance moves, no bare midriffs and no routines that would embarrass parents. At FCC camps and clinics around the country, cheerleaders are told the rules upfront, which also include a ban on trash-talk ("stomp-the-other-team") cheers.
The emphasis at these camps is on all things positive and uplifting, and that's just fine with many of the 25,000 students who attend each year. Angela Jackson, a 17-year-old cheerleader at the Christian Heritage Academy in Del City, Okla., notes the cheerleading team's cabinet full of first-place trophies, which she says were won without surrendering any dignity.
"Whenever we go out and perform," she explains, "what we've done isn't going to offend anybody or make anybody feel uncomfortable, because we have self-respect. And the whole squad feels the same way."
Her coach, Deani Merrell, who keeps a close eye on the squad as it practices gravity-defying flips, believes the growth of Christian cheerleading is more than just a response to a coarsening culture. She sees a strong desire in young people to express their faith openly, something she says is not easily done in public school or at work these days.
Merrell believes young people want to be able to bring their faith into their everyday lives and express it, and Christian cheerleading offers one way to do that. "It's more than just cheerleading, it's your heart's condition. And having the right heart's condition when you come up here: willingness to work, a love for the Lord."
And Christian cheerleading is growing quickly in popularity, just as Christian music, Christian radio and Christian publishing have in recent years.
In 1983, there were only 59 Christian camps and clinics in the country. Today, there are more than 500, and the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders has also started camps and clinics in the Czech Republic and Russia. And the smaller Christian Cheerleaders of America is watching its attendance grow by about 25 percent a year.
These organizations are not resting on their spiritual laurels; the FCC's John Blake says one big attraction of the camps is that they teach creative ways to perform what are some very impressive routines: aerial acrobatics, competitive stunts and high-octane cheers that rival the best of secular cheerleading.
"We don't want to be second-best," says Blake. "I think a lot of times people are going to look at Christian organizations and think, 'Oh, well, you know they're not as good.' And, you know, we kind of take offense at that. We believe we have Christ on our side, so we're just held to a higher standard."