In the town of Auburn, AL, the intersection of Magnolia and College streets is known as Toomer’s Corner, named for a small store located there called Toomer’s Drugs. For over 100 years, this corner and the iconic live oak trees that grow there have played a central role in the life of Auburn University. Whenever Auburn has reason to celebrate—a football victory, for example—students cover these venerable old trees with toilet paper in a tradition known as “rolling the corner”.

This week a man was arrested for poisoning the Toomer’s Corner trees and it seems quite likely that they will die. The suspect, Harvey Updyke Jr., is a fan of Auburn’s rival, the University of Alabama, and claims he poisoned these trees after Auburn beat Alabama in their annual rivalry game known as the Iron Bowl. He boasted about his deed on a call-in radio show, ending his call with “Roll Damn Tide!”

It is often pointed out that in the Southeastern Conference—indeed, throughout the entire south—football is religion. As a (more or less) native of the region, I can attest to the truth of this claim, and my Chicago friends can attest to my passion for SEC football. I’ve recently picked up a book by Chad Gibbs called God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC, which I’m looking forward to reading. ESPN perfectly—and now, sadly, ironically—captured the way football and team allegiance permeates the south in this commercial:

If football and religion are indeed so deeply connected in the south, then the poisoning of the Toomer’s Corner trees is nothing less than an act of terrorism by a religious extremist.

This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think it is. What a sad commentary on our cultural divisions that a football extremist would destroy one of his rival’s cherished traditions. And what else besides a religious—indeed, idolatrous—devotion to his team can explain this act of violence?

Religious extremism is one of the most dangerous threats our world faces. My heart breaks at the ubiquity of this idolatrous madness.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

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