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.

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

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.

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’.”

Many evangelicals say they have drawn scorn for bringing faith into the public square, and in Tebow they see someone rebuffing critics who wish he’d stop talking about Jesus Christ. They see a courageous ambassador who leads an exceptionally honorable life – a virgin in adulthood, an advocate for disadvantaged children – and they credit the power of Christ within him.

“He has the following that he does, and people are interested in his story from a Christian perspective, because we [Christians] have been attacked in the media, in the entertainment world and in politics,” says Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a Christian advocacy group. “This is a guy in the public arena, happens to be professional sports, and he’s one of us. And we’re cheering him on.”

Beyond evangelicals

Yet it is not only evangelical Christians who have found something to celebrate in Tebow's behavior. Other observers look past his Christian witness and see a figure who stands for strong moral values at a crucial time. For kids who’ve rarely if ever seen a powerful man be kind, humble, or sacrificial, Tebow offers an important alternative, says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I happen to be Jewish … and it’s not Tebow versus other religions,” Mr. Lebowitz says. “I believe in a new construct of manhood. You can be tough as heck on the football field, but still be kind, compassionate, respectful of women…. He sends a message that there may be dignity in choosing partners carefully, or respecting your body and someone else’s body as a temple. I respect that.”

Some Christians worry, however, that Tebow’s faith-on-the-sleeve style might lead Christians to neglect their calling to be humble. Jacob Simpson, ministry associate at Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church in Manhattan, cites the Sermon on the Mount in explaining that Christians have a Biblical mandate to pray privately, not in front of cameras, and avoid ostentatious displays.

“As a Christian, I personally am a little bit offended because I feel what [Tebow] is doing is not only an unfortunate display of piety, but is also contrary to scripture,” Simpson says. “As Christians, we’re taught to pray humbly and to live for others. The best way to display piety is to show them how good God is, rather than to show them how good of a Christian you are.”

Evangelicals, however, bring a different take. Gary Schneeberger, spokesman for Focus on the Family, finds its basis in another Bible message: Don’t hide your light under a bushel. As long as God gets the glory, Tebow reportedly isn’t taking credit, but is instead humbly exalting God’s greatness as giver of blessings. That’s why God has given him a high-profile stage, Tebow supporters say, and many are proud to see him using it.

“People see the character with which Tim plays the game and say, ‘What is it that makes him different?’ ” Mr. Schneeberger adds. “The true impact of what’s happening right now with Tim Tebow and the Broncos winning those games won’t be felt for years as those seeds [of inspiration] begin to sprout in the people who are watching.”

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