The real meaning of Tim Tebow's pro-life Super Bowl ad.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 29 2010 4:27 PM

Tim Tebow Goes for the Conversion

The real meaning of the quarterback's pro-life Super Bowl ad.

Also in Slate, William Saletan documents the grisly truth about Tim Tebow’s Super Bowl abortion ad. To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss Tim Tebow's pro-life Super Bowl ad and NFL prospects on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 10:40 mark:  

Tim Tebow. Click image to expand.
Tim Tebow

"Grind on me, test me," Tim Tebow recently told Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "I feel I've prepared my whole life for this." He was talking about the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where Tebow's been huffing his way through brutal workouts before an audience of NFL scouts. The University of Florida quarterback could have just as easily been talking about his upcoming Super Bowl commercial. During the big game on Feb. 7, the doe-eyed, block-chested football star will appear alongside his mother, Pam. Together they'll tell the story of Tim's birth: how Pam's pregnancy was threatened by a tropical disease (the family was living in the Philippines, as missionaries), doctors told her to abort the child, and she refused. And now look at her kid: Heisman winner, preacher, Christian heartthrob. At a press conference last week, Tebow said that he's "always been very convicted" about the wrongness of abortion "because that's the reason I'm here."

Ponying up the estimated $2.5 to $2.8 million for the 30 seconds of airtime is Focus on the Family, the evangelical ministry led until last year by abortion foe and SpongeBob SquarePants hater James Dobson. Judging by the protest pages on Facebook and outbursts on Twitter, some are surprised that the Tebows would partner up with such an organization. The truth is that Tim Tebow's appearance in this ad shouldn't be surprising at all: He's spent his life preparing for this commercial the same way Ben Bernanke spent his preparing to run the Fed in a post-bubble economic contraction.

Tim Tebow is a messenger. His name is "Timothy" because 23 years ago Bob Tebow was out preaching in some hot and dusty part of the Philippines, and he asked God to give him a preacher son. (Timothy is the name of a biblical preacher.) "Timmy has it built into him that he is on a mission from God to affect people's lives," Bob has said. And to do that, Bob Tebow's son needs an audience.

The Tebows have been clear about this mission. Decisions about Tim's career are motivated by a search for an ever-larger soapbox. Tebow didn't choose to return to Florida to finish his education—"I'm a football player this semester," he explained before the season commenced. So, why did he come back? "I believe that I have a big platform here," Tebow told me last spring in Gainesville, Fla., "and I have an opportunity to help a lot of people here and influence a lot of people here." So he stayed. Tebow's success in college allows him to spread the good word in a way he might not be able to if he gets moved to H-back in the pros. (Perhaps this is why he's so adamant about going to a team that will give him a shot to play quarterback. Nobody wants to hear Frank Wycheck talk about Jesus.) And now he's set to reach the biggest audience in Christendom. The commercial isn't a means; it's the end.

What is the end? It's not just stopping abortions. Tebow wants to convert people, like his father does in Muslim areas of the Philippines. Until now, he's been subtle in his outreach, pushing his message gently, painting "PHIL 4:13" and "JOHN 3:16" and "MARK 8:36" in his eye black—an ingenious touch that prods even the most degenerate couch potato into Googling Bible verses out of curiosity. This Super Bowl commercial represents a new strategy for Tebow Inc.—one that's more confrontational and also much more in keeping with the family's ultraconservative roots.

The true extent and character of Tebow's faith has always flown under the media radar. That might stem from skepticism that there could be so little daylight between the beliefs of the members of a family—surely Tebow must disagree with his parents about some things? But if he does diverge from his family's evangelical beliefs, there's no evidence of it. There's probably also some queasiness on the part of media elites (me included) over the idea that the family really believes what it says it believes. Tebow has always referred to himself as a "missionary" who just happens to meet his flock on a gridiron ("There are a lot of ways to be a missionary," he told me); many of us, I think, have assumed he was speaking symbolically. But the Tebows have about as much interest in symbolism as NFL coaches have in Tebow's famously goofy jump pass. 

Go to Bob Tebow's Web site and you can read a 10-point, 2,200-word manifesto that begins with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and ends with the Apocalypse: "The universe will be destroyed, followed by the judgment at the Great White Throne." Tim has grown up surrounded by charismatic figures in the conservative tradition of Southern Baptism—his father first and foremost, and also his pastor at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Jerry Vines. Vines spent a long career decrying "the wolf of liberalism." He made headlines in 2002 when he said that the prophet Mohammed is "a demon-obsessed pedophile." Four years later, when Vines retired, Tebow spoke at the ceremony. "He has always shared the Word of God and shared it like it's coming straight at me," he said. "There's a lot of role models, but not a lot of role models with character." Vines' response: "No wonder you are such a terror on the football field, Tim. You came to a church that's a holy terror to the devil."

Tebow has never really been asked about this stuff, which is a shame. I had a chance when I wrote a profile of him for GQ, but I blew it. I only got as far as a little riff on evolution, which Tim brought up himself, mentioning his admiration for creationist Ravi Zacharias. "Have you ever heard Ravi Zacharias speak before?" Tebow asked me. "He came here to speak and I talked to him for a little bit. … The way he can draw you in with his stories and his wording, and then at the same time make it so easy and simple for someone to understand—I was like, man, he's great. I thought it was awesome." But when I got to the heavier God stuff, I started to sweat, fumbling my questions like a blown snap from center. I kept thinking, This guy is a college football player. It's not fair to ask him what he thinks of Mohammed.

But that was not only stupid; it was condescending. Today, I really regret not asking Tebow about Islam and gay marriage. I regret not asking him if a Jew can go to heaven, and whether he believes that Hurricane Katrina and the stock-market crash are manifestations of "God's wrath"—as the new pastor at his church, Mac Brunson, has said. (Just last Sunday, Brunson name-checked Pat Robertson, who had been pilloried for calling the people of Haiti devil-worshippers: "You can't help but just pray for him, you know?" Brunson told his congregation. "He may be right, but what a dumb time to say something like that.") These are more than fair questions given Tebow's decision to politicize the Super Bowl, and if reporters don't ask them, they're actually doing Tebow a disservice. At SEC Media Day last year, one brave reporter asked Tebow if he was saving himself for marriage. "Yes, I am," Tebow said as the room burst into nervous giggles. He laughed and his eyes lit up: "I think y'all are stunned right now! You can't even ask a question!" If anything, he was frustrated that nobody had asked him the question sooner. After all, it can't be much fun to be a culture warrior if the opposing culture is constantly wimping out, denying you a chance to show your true mettle. Grind him, test him—he's ready.

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