Football has long been a secular religion in America. But Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ overgrown cherub of a quarterback, has been blurring the line that separates it from actual religion. To the faithful, the evangelical signal-caller’s improbable run of on-field success testifies not just to his competitive spirit, but to the Holy Spirit. Tebow’s religious zeal—he makes pro-life ads with his mom, sings “Our God is an awesome God” during pregame warmups, and, of course, he Tebows—made him a bona fide cross-over star in the ecclesiastical realm even before his recent string of deus ex machina victories.
Hard-headed Hitchens types have had the latest laugh, as Tebow failed to conjure any fourth-quarter marvels in a 41-23 loss to a superior team—and a superior quarterback. But even if Tom Brady had better numbers on the field, I’m willing to bet that Tim Tebow got more mentions at church on Sunday—and even in temple on Saturday: A little Googling suggests that “Tim Tebow sermons” have become popular with some rabbis as well as plenty of pastors. And reading those sermons themselves, one begins to suspect that the setback against the Patriots will not make Tebow less popular in the pews. Rather, this loss is just the latest bit of adversity he will nobly overcome.
Consider Pastor Randy Smith’s words delivered last year at the Grace Tabernacle Church in Allenwood, N.J.: “We carry our crosses every time we bear reproach for the name of Christ. And if we seek to live as lights in a world of darkness (as we should), you can only imagine a conflict will arise. We do not have to look for trouble. There will always be hostility when godliness invades ungodliness. Just ask Tim Tebow and his mother!”
To Smith, the Tebow backlash illustrates the cross that Christians have to bear simply for being Jesus’ followers. Tebow, of course, seems to bear it quite happily. It’s his apparently serene acceptance of both praise and criticism that delights people like Pastor Jim Phillips, who recently gave a Tebow-themed sermon at a Denver church—while wearing a Tebow jersey.
Phillips’ flock seems to share his unorthodox taste in church attire. “There’s 30 to 40 jerseys every week, from infants to grandparents who are all wearing Tebow,” the pastor told The Daily. “Tebow has given us the opportunity to elevate the conversation about Jesus because he’s so forward about his faith.”
That forwardness is the quality most often referenced in sermons about Tebow. It’s also provided comic fodder: This past weekend, a Saturday Night Live sketch joked that even Jesus thinks Tebow should be a little less conspicuous about his Christianity. But a pastor at a liberal Denver church took his very discomfort with Tebow’s aggressive stance as the basis for a lesson about not being “of the world.” He compared the hometown hero to John the Baptist, noting, “Both attract huge numbers of folks from the countryside to participate in their spectacle. Both of them, it seems, are too often mistaken for being the Messiah. And both of them seem to do nothing except point to Jesus.”
“As with John the Baptizer,” the pastor continued, “not everyone is down with Tebow’s public displays of affection for his Savior. But then, I’m not sure people have really ever been down with public displays of faith. I know I’m not. … I mean, I guess in theory we’re all supposed to be all about taking the Good News to the world. But if you’re like me, you probably prefer St. Francis to Tim Tebow. You know, that whole, ‘preach the Gospel at all times, and use words only if necessary’ thing?” Ultimately, though, this pastor found value in the discomfort prompted by the Broncos quarterback: “Maybe Tebow’s on to something after all,” he concludes. “Amen.”
Tebow has not only united liberal and conservative Christians, but, even more surprisingly, some Jews as well: The man behind the Tebowing blog, it turns out, is 24-year-old Jared Kleinstein. “In Denver, people see football as religion; Tebow unites people of all faiths,” he told the Jewish magazine Jweekly.com.
A startling exception to the good will came from a Connecticut rabbi named Joshua Hammerman, who wrote an anti-Tebow screed in the magazine The Jewish Week that has since been taken down from its website. Excerpts have been preserved, however:
Absolutely confident that God is on his side, (Tebow) comes across as a humbler version of the biblical Joseph, who, in this week’s Torah portion, audaciously lays claim to being the Chosen One, and then goes out and proves it. Tebow’s sanctimonious God-talk has led even pious peers like Kurt Warner to suggest that he cool it. Joseph could have used the same coaching.
If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.
Both the rabbi and the magazine later apologized for the column, calling it “more inciting than insightful.” So far, Hammerman’s rant has been the outlier: Not just Jews but Muslims have evinced admiration for Tebow—at least in Colorado, where Tebow’s team plays. The board chair of the Colorado Muslim Society told Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze, “I know I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but I admire somebody who thanks God for everything that he gave him.”
Further viewing: In case you missed it, the SNL sketch about Tebow that aired last Saturday is below. Enjoy.