Tim Tebow’s rise to the status of the Greatest Christian Martyr of the 21st Century is playing out on an almost daily basis on my Twitter feed and Facebook wall. (It’s not quite as bad as this, but it’s getting close.) I desperately wish I had time to take it seriously, or at least as seriously as a very, very strange and silly phenomenon like this can be taken, but alas, end-of-semester grad school obligations makes doing virtually anything else impossible. So a few scattered thoughts will have to suffice.
First, do any serious evangelicals—and by that I mean people who are not complete wagon-circling, in-the-tank culture warriors—believe Tebow’s behavior is an appropriate, biblical or otherwise justifiable manifestation of Christian piety? I know a few people out there, including Andrew Sullivan, have drawn attention to Jesus’ pretty unequivocal denunciation of “praying on the street corners” religiosity. One of Andrew’s readers came back with, “Well, this is Tebow’s profession, his daily life, and it just happens to play out in front of millions of people.” I get that to an extent but don’t buy it. Almost no evangelical Christian believes kneeling to be a requirement for prayer, and I defy you to find me a single one who kneels in front of their co-workers to pray before “big moments.” Tebow’s public religiosity doesn’t stop there: he also mentions his “Lord and savior Jesus Christ” at the beginning of every interview, and when he was a college player painted scripture references under his eyes. Maybe, maybe he is just so overflowing with love for God that he can’t help but carefully paint his face this way, but it seems more plausible that he wants millions of people to see it on TV.
I realize that, as someone who isn’t favorably inclined toward Tebow’s type of faith, my opinion probably makes little difference. I’m unapologetically opposed to proselytizing, and I know evangelicals are defined by it. That’s fine. But I’m sincerely mystified at how what Tebow is doing can be understood in any other way besides a gratuitous, bullying type of proselytizing that draws attention to himself and reaffirms negative stereotypes about evangelical Christians as people who just can’t comprehend when and where religious displays are appropriate and where they are not. I have no objection to people knowing Tim Tebow is a Christian, that he thanks God for his success, and sometimes does so on the field. But this is something else entirely: Tebow has made such an issue of his religion that its in everyone’s face not just sometimes but all the time. It’s safe to say that more people than not are going to find that odd and at least a little bit off-putting, and they are going to talk and write about it.
So it’s dumbfounding that people are actually claiming that Tebow isn’t responsible for the media spectacle. He was, to hear some evangelicals tell it, just minding his own business until the critical sportscasters, hostile opponents and nasty ESPN.com commenters decided to make him a target. I do not deny there has been unjustifiably mean, personal attacks on Tebow that amount to anti-religious bigotry. But much of it is criticism absolutely any professional athlete would be subjected to for his on-the-court attitude, his off-the-court-behavior, his racial or political comments, etc. The whole purpose of sports media is to talk all the time about sports, to pick apart players’ professional and personal lives. If Tebow makes an issue of his religion by practicing it in an overt, public manner that is unusual both for most Christians in professional environments and for the NFL, then it is going to be talked about! Discussing an unusual aspect of an athlete is what the media does, not an illustration of a particularly hostile anti-Christian bias.
It seems that all of this paranoid delusion about the media being out to get Tebow can be explained as yet another dimension of the culture war. It’s not a very interesting conclusion, I know, but it’s surprising and depressing how much everything comes down to that. (Here is my friend Todd Starnes linking Tebow to Hollywood’s indoctrination of children and the banishment of faith from the public square.) There is a unique evangelical anxiety about being outside the mainstream, and Christians desperately want to be affirmed as normative or at least acceptable in popular culture. It vibrates back and forth between an earnest desire for inclusion and a hostile, aggressive determination to force secular culture to pay attention. Tim Tebow seems to be a case of the latter: a very good college quarterback and promising NFL star who will not let the faith issue rest. He’s on their team, and he’s so big he can’t be ignored by the god-hating media. This is, it seems, where decades of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and the Family Research Council will get you. Everything comes down to a fight for the right to be openly, unapologetically religious in every situation. And just, really? Who decided that was something desirable? And worth fighting a big, ugly battle about?
Now that I’ve likely eroded my credibility with Tebow defenders, let me say that I really could not care less if he prays on the field or paints Bible verses on his face. It really is his life, his career, and his image—between him and God, as some Christians might put it. I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not looking for the evangelical sainthood he’s received. Tebow himself is really beside the point at this point; this war has taken a dimension that has little to do with his actual behavior. So to anyone who made sport of Tebow in a mean-spirited, gratuitous way, you really should grow up and learn to tolerate people who don’t believe like you do. But to the evangelicals who have turned Tebow into cause célèbre in the culture war: Is this really what you think Christianity is about? I sure wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting any part of it.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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