Religion In the Public Square, and End Zone

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose religious faith and squeaky-clean lifestyle are so earnest that pop culture doesn’t quite know what to do with him, has a practice of kneeling in the end zone and thanking God for his touchdowns.  Some of those touchdowns have been fairly strong evidence for the existence of God.  At minimum, it’s likely that a substantial percentage of Broncos fans began praying long before Tebow did.

This has led “tebowing” to become the new “planking,” as people snap photos of themselves imitating the quarterback’s humble-before-God pose in various unlikely locations.  A piece from KDVR TV in Denver shows us the invincibly cheerful Tebow is undisturbed by this, and other attempts to mock his image:

“If I can help be an example of that, then I look at that as a blessing,” says Tebow after practice at Dove Valley Friday morning. 

Even his teammate Von Miller showed support by submitting a picture to the website as he kneels wearing a Tebow jersey. 

“That’s part of his image. He does before it and after every game,” says Miller. “But it’s a little fun thing to do. Fans got into it. I did too.” 

Tebow saying its good people are praying or at least talking about it. 

“A kid that tweeted me with cancer, ‘I’m Tebowing while chemoing,’ How cool is that? That’s worth it right there. If that gives him any encouragement or puts a smile on his face,” says Tebow.

A mortal man causing divine inspiration on the football field and off. has had 700,000 unique visitors and 2.5 million page views in just three days when it launched Tuesday. 

There is some controversy about Tebow’s end-zone kneeling, as adroitly summarized in a USA Today article:

“Tim is who he is,” said Brent High, the Associate Director of Athletics for Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University, who saw an event sell out when Tebow was a guest speaker there. “If you are a Christian, he is your absolute flag-bearer in the sports world. You cheer for him and you hurt for him when he takes the beating that he takes.”

But …

“If I am putting myself in the shoes of someone who is offended … and Tebow is getting down on one knee with all cameras trained on him, that’s in my face … So I can see why it’s like the fingernails on the chalkboard to those people.”

As USA Today points out, Tebow is hardly the first player to express a measure of faith on the gridiron, but he’s become the flashpoint for controversy because of his obvious sincerity and consistency.  Quite a few people feel that it’s inappropriate for Tebow to be “getting in their faces” by communing with the Almighty while the almighty camera is focused upon him.  Some are worried he’ll drive away NFL viewers. 

By the way, who’s going to be the SuperBowl halftime act this year?  Oh, that’s right: Madonna.  You remember Madonna, don’t you?  (I’ll understand if you don’t.  Trust me: she was huge, back in the day.)  She’s noted for holding very outspoken religious views, and they most certainly did infuse themselves into her public performances.  Was the video for “Like a Prayer” more, or less, “in your face” than Tebowing?  It was condemned by the Vatican for its abuse of religious imagery.  Pepsi paid big bucks to build an ad campaign around it, then yanked the ad and canceled its contract with Madonna after controversy erupted.

Leaving religion aside, Madonna had a gigantic impact on the moral values of young people.  (For you young people scratching your heads and wondering who she is, I’m talking about young people from the Eighties and early Nineties.  We’re still young at heart, dagnabbit!)  This was very deliberate on her part.  No small number of those young girls learned, to their sorrow, that the man-smashing Madonna lifestyle is much harder to live when you’re not a multi-millionaire pop star.

But she’s welcome at the Super Bowl, while Tim Tebow is a lightning rod of controversy because he spends a few seconds on one knee with his head bowed after a touchdown?  (There’s some unhappiness about the choice of half-time entertainment in Indiana, where the Super Bowl will be held, but it’s mostly because Madonna is not from Indiana.)

The Tebowing controversy is just the latest milestone in a long cultural struggle that began long before Tebow was born, and will continue long after he’s gone.  There is a Western cultural conceit that public space can, and should, be completely cleansed of religion – and since morality is closely linked to religious faith, it should be kept offstage as well.  That’s patently ridiculous, because it’s impossible. 

Nothing about the culture wars strikes me as more absurd than pretending that the aggressive absence of faith is not, itself, a religious position.  The hue and cry over Tim Tebow’s tiny little moments of devotion are the latest shredding of this position.  The creators of popular culture are very interested in spreading morality, and a lot of their messages carry inevitable religious connotations.  They’re simply determined to ensure that only their religious and moral positions are presented to captive audiences.

If pro football wants to do completely away with all post-touchdown demonstrations, then fair enough.  They can set whatever rules they wish.  But as long as players aren’t required to stand at attention after a big score, I don’t see anything objectively wrong with Tebow’s choice of celebration, compared to anyone else’s.  A lot of his critics are bending themselves into pretzels to make the very simple point that devout Christians are not welcome in front of cameras, while somehow preserving their precious “tolerance” credentials.  Cognitive dissonance explains many of our cultural flaws.