If there’s any question about the level of religious divisiveness in America, just look to the NFL, and the cult of personality, punditry, and outright passion surrounding Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. The former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida, a devout Evangelical Christian who isn’t shy about spreading the gospel, has completed just 45 NFL passes through the first one and a quarter seasons of his career. But given Tebow’s celebrity — for a time, his jersey was the top seller on NFLshop.com — you might mistake him for an established pro, not a third-stringer. It was only this past week that Denver coach John Fox, after almost maniacal urging from a group of Denver fans and subpar play from starter Kyle Orton, decided to grant Tebow a start, in Denver’s Oct. 23 game at Miami.
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Legions of websites cheer for Tebow’s success, and just as many revel in his failures. Here’s how one group on Facebook, called “Pray for Tim Tebow,” states its mission: “Tim Tebow is the figure head for Christianity in sports. He is a great man of God and seeks to further His kingdom through football. He has overwhelming impact on our culture, so much that he is under heavy persecution. He is in desperate need of our prayers as I believe he is fighting against the devil himself …”
Those perceived hell-dwellers don’t shy away from mocking Tebow’s faith. A commenter on another Facebook group, Tim Tebow Sucks! — not to be confused with Tim Tebow Sucks, without the exclamation point — wrote: “God submitted his fantasy lineup this week. Orton is starting QB.” Daily Show correspondent John Oliver mentioned Tebow in the same breath as Osama bin Laden during a 2010 stand-up act at Florida State, a University of Florida archrival where anti-Tebow sentiment runs high. “If I was in a room with Tim Tebow and bin Laden, and I had a gun with one bullet in it, I’d shoot bin Laden, I’m not a monster,” Oliver said. “But if I had two bullets, I’d shoot Tim Tebow first.” The crowd whooped it up. “How dare you, how dare you, thank God before thanking your offensive line.”
Tebow is far from the first athlete to trumpet his religious beliefs. On any given Sunday, or any other day for that matter, you’ll find sports stars who speak into the microphone and thank God before their teammates. And in many ways, Tebow embodies everything we supposedly want in professional athletes. By all accounts, he stays out of trouble, embraces charity, and is an overwhelmingly good guy. Tebow’s foundation supports an orphanage in the Philippines, where his family has done missionary work since 1985.
But while some guys wear religion on their sleeves, Tebow literally covers his body with faith. He writes out bible verses on his eye-black [the face paint athletes wear to reduce glare]. Tebow is an unabashed believer, who views the world in black and white. He once told a group of prisoners: “If you have Jesus Christ in your heart, you are going to spend eternity in heaven. If you don’t, you’re going to spend eternity in hell.”
Before the 2010 Super Bowl, Tebow threw himself, headlong, into one of the country’s most divisive and deeply personal debates — abortion — by appearing in a pro-life Super Bowl ad for Focus on the Family, the prominent Evangelical organization. (One touchstone of Tebow lore: his mother, Pam, suffered from pregnancy complications with Tim, and a doctor told her that an abortion might save her life. The devout Pam gave birth to Tim anyway, and many of Tebow’s supporters view his success as a message from God.)
Tebow seems to have crossed a line that most athletes have respected. They’ll celebrate their own faith, but won’t challenge yours. “This is a sticking point,” says Arthur Remillard, a religious studies professor at St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa., who teaches a course on sports and religion, and starts it off with a Tebow discussion. “It’s one thing for an athlete to say ‘Thank you, Jesus,” on a Sunday afternoon. It’s another for him to make what amounts to a declaration that ‘I am morally superior to you.’ There’s a segment of the fan base that’s not too keen on hearing that.”
In a 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story, Tebow was also quoted telling prisoners: “If you were to die right now, where would you be? For me, I have an answer to that question. I am one hundred percent certain I’m going to go to heaven because I have Jesus Christ in my life.” In his 2011 autobiography, Through My Eyes, Tebow remembers a satisfying college win. “As great as that was,” writes Tebow, “how much greater will it feel when we get to heaven and Jesus takes off His headset, opens up His arms, gives us a big hug, and says, ‘Atta boy, Great job. You finished. I love you.”
Remillard emphasizes that other factors, besides religion, fuel the cult of Tim Tebow. His size and unorthodox playing style naturally attract attention; at 6’3″, 236 lbs, Tebow is built like a fullback rather than a quarterback. While some pundits lament Tebow’s lack of passing mechanics, to many fans his running ability makes him even more exciting. Oh, and despite his unimpressive pro career so far, the guy did win the 2007 Heisman Trophy, and two national championships, in the 2006 and 2008 seasons. “But is the reaction to Tebow reflective of the divisiveness of religious discourse in this country? Absolutely,” says Remillard. “Echoes of the culture war mentality have crept into the debate about Tebow’s football skills. In the world of today’s Christian athletes, he’s pretty unique.”
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And some in the religious right certainly have a stake in Tebow’s season debut. (As if the Oct. 23 game in Miami wouldn’t generate enough interest, the Dolphins were already set to honor Tebow’s 2009 championship team at halftime of the game.) For them, he’s a standard bearer. Tebow’s success becomes their success. At other times in American history, sports have helped religious groups assert themselves. During the wave of anti-Catholicism in the 1920s, Notre Dame’s football feats helped hush some of the ugly discourse. When anti-Semitism was rampant in the 1930s, “Hammerin'” Hank Greenberg was a source of pride for Jews.
It’s hard to argue that today’s Evangelical Christians are a persecuted religious minority on the order of those two groups. But Tebow can help, all the same. In fact, he already has. “In the eyes of Evangelicals, Tebow is saved,” says Remillard. “No matter what, Evangelicals win.”
And for many others, even if Tebow throws five touchdown passes in a Denver victory, he loses. That’s too bad. If people don’t like Tebow’s message, there’s a better alternative than attacking him. As Tebow himself might tell them, they can always choose to turn the other cheek.