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Tim Tebow: Hero? Role model? Overbearing evangelist? All of the above.

Tim Tebow is many things to many people, in part because he has sparked a national conversation about religion's place in American life. Call it the Tim Tebow culture wars.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / December 11, 2011

A Tim Tebow sign during an NFL football game between the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in Denver.

Jack Dempsey/AP

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Seemingly the only thing about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow that most Americans can agree upon is that he is much more than just another pro football player.

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Even in football circles, Tebow is a curiosity – either a passer of extremely limited skill enjoying a run of extraordinary fortune or an outlier whose freakish ability to run the ball makes him a new species of quarterback.  

Yet it isn't the Denver Broncos' spread-option revolution that makes Tebow a national lightning rod. It is a religious style so bold, and a character so distinctive, that both are impossible to ignore. 

People of faith see something much bigger than football, as Tebow defines what it means to follow Jesus in a jaded and uncertain modern world.

People tired of pro sports' descent toward criminal behavior, vanity, and self-indulgence see in Tebow an honorable new model for manhood.

And people affronted by public displays of religious fervor see in Tebow a showy type of faith that offends and even perverts scripture.

Tebow is many things to many people, with fans and critics making meaning from his young career faster than concessionaires can cook Bronco Brats. But clearly, his unexpected success as the Broncos starting quarterback – guiding the team into playoff position after a 1-4 start – is serving as a touchstone for the intense and often contentious debate over where religion fits in contemporary America.

“The conversation about Tim Tebow is a culture wars kind of dynamic that transcends sports,” says Tom Krattenmaker, author of "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers." “Tim Tebow is one of the major venues for this ongoing argument about Christianity in our public life.”

Tebow's biggest fans?

With Tebow and the resurgent Broncos riding a five-game winning streak ahead of their game with the Chicago Bears Sunday, no group feels the pride more intensely than evangelical Christians. They revere his background as a son of missionaries and count him as one of their ow. They have helped his jerseys rank among the league’s top sellers since he joined the Broncos last year.

[Editor's Note: Make that a six-game winning streak; the Broncos beat Chicago in overtime, 13-10]

Cheers for Broncos' turnaround – the so-called “Mile High Miracle” – stretch from congregations to cyberspace. Example: nowtheendbegins.com, an apocalyptic website, asserts that “The Mile High Miracle is not about football. It’s about a man. Jesus Christ.”

Some vendors have gone so far as to hawk Broncos jerseys with Tebow’s No. 15 and the name “Jesus” on the back. Tebow doesn’t purport to be a savior, but he has made himself into more than an athlete. He starred, for instance, in a controversial anti-abortion advertisement from Focus on the Family during the Super Bowl in 2010.

“A large chunk of Christians find themselves [feeling] kind of persecuted by society,” says Ronald Simkins, director of the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University. “And now here’s a guy who has given his testimony, has been persecuted for it and has been made a figure of shame… I think there would be a lot of pride in, ‘here’s one of ours who took it for the team’.”

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