The past few weeks have been a Tebow-free zone. In the absence of wondering if divine intervention plays a role in NFL games, Americans have been able to go back to making gods of ordinary heroes like Tom Brady and Eli Manning.
It seems there’s no middle ground on how people feel about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow – more famous for his public displays of Christian faith than for his passing skills. He’s either a messiah or a pariah, depending largely on where you fit on the evangelical scale.
If you tend to believe America needs more traditional Christian values, Mr. Tebow is a rush of fresh air. If you prefer religion to be something that happens behind closed doors, he makes you a bit nervous.
I’m from the behind-closed-door school of religion. Some of that may be because my faith, Judaism, is not an evangelical faith. In fact, when a person wants to convert to Judaism, the rabbi’s first job is to try to talk the person out of it. Evangelical Christians such as Tebow, on the other hand, are called to be missionaries.
So part of the divide on the way people view Tebow is cultural and religious. And you see this divide playing out in all sorts of arenas. In politics, for example, evangelical candidates tend to talk about God and faith a lot more than other candidates.
My friend Seth, an attorney and passionate defender of the First Amendment, is not fond of Tebow’s proclamations on national television. While Seth would be an eloquent defender of Tebow’s First Amendment rights if called upon, he cringes when Tebow thanks his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in an interview.
But it’s funny: Republican candidates have spent the fall saying the same things Tebow says – and on national television during a debate season that contained almost as many contests as there are game days in the NFL season. But while very few commentators seem troubled by the candidates’ very public displays of faith, hundreds of articles have been written during the same time criticizing Tebow’s evangelical behavior. And not just on ESPN.com but in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, too.
What is it that rankles so many football fans about Tim Tebow’s outspoken evangelicalism? The answer, it seems to me, is that for millions of fans, football is our religion. And you can mess with our politics, but don’t mess with our religion. Americans have come to expect religious rhetoric from Republican candidates this season. But they’re not used to the same coming from their quarterbacks. That crosses a line. It’s not that football fans necessarily mind Tim Tebow’s missionary zeal; they just want to keep it out of the purity of their sacred Sunday ritual.
Sunday, as Al Roker likes to say, is ”Football Day in America.” It’s our national Sabbath.
Football brings people together. A Wall Street banker prays for a touchdown just as fervently as the construction worker standing next to him. And when it happens, they rejoice together. The 1 percent and the 99 percent.
Your denomination might be Giants or Patriots, but underneath the face paint, all fans are essentially the same. They practice the same type of game-day rituals: wearing the right colors or a special pair of socks, eating the same foods, watching the game at the same place. They believe the same things: that miracles can happen, that their voice can change the outcome of a game, that it’s not over till the Fat Lady sings.
The game also has Saints (they play in New Orleans) and dark forces of evil (the Oakland Raiders or your team’s arch rival) and Hail Mary passes and The Immaculate Reception (for you religious historians, it happened 40 years ago) and The Gospel (“A winner never quits and a quitter never wins”) and redemption (see Michael Vick) and acts of kindness (The NFL gives millions to charities) and blind faith (see Cleveland Browns fans) and ecstasy (which awaits either the fans of the Giants or Patriots February 5th).
I have seen men who didn’t cry at their mother’s funeral cry at the end of a particularly brutal last-second loss. And I’ve cried with them. Football, like religion, contains rituals for grief and provides opportunities to celebrate joy.
But football does something even more powerful than religion, something we desperately crave in today’s America: It brings people together. It levels the playing field in a way our tax system doesn’t. The richest fan is just as likely as the poorest fan to be ravaged or rewarded by the gods of football every Sunday. Intellect, personal taste, ethnicity – none of it matters on Sunday. All that matters is the purity of your pigskin faith.
There are no culture wars between fans. Only fierce rivalries. There are no blue fans and red fans. Just fans wearing red, blue, and gray uniforms (see Giants, Patriots). As football followers, we are all the 100 percent. And Tim Tebow’s proclamations of his religious faith are an unwelcome reminder that come Monday, we are all smaller percentages of different minorities.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.