Tim Tebow's Secret Handshake

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This weekend, the Denver Broncos face off against the heavily-favored New England Patriots in the second round of the NFL championship playoffs. The game is worthy of note because it means another week of pop culture fixation on Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

Even if you don’t follow professional football, you’ve probably heard of Tebow. The former University of Florida star has crossed over into mainstream culture reference. Some of the popular interest focuses on his unconventional mechanics and style of play; most of it focuses on his devout — and conspicuously proclaimed — Christian faith. His practice of kneeling in prayer before and after games has been copied (and mocked) widely.

As long as he keeps any jihadi impulses to himself, I care little about another man’s religious beliefs. Nor do I share the contempt that some atheists have for the faithful. Generally, I agree with the spirit of Pascal’s Wager: lacking conclusive data, I would be arrogant to assert or deny the existence of an omnipotent diety.

Musing on the metaphysical qualities of God isn’t the point of this reflection, though. The strong reaction to one football player’s public shows of piety renders my diffidence . . . insufficient.

Tebow doesn’t mind proselytizing. In fact, he — like many of his coreligionists — believes that promoting God is essential to serving God. His logic goes something like this: God gave Tebow athletic talent and charisma not because He cares who wins a given game but because fame on the football field creates a bigger platform for Tebow’s message of devotion. So, Tebow believes he is obligated to use his media access to reach out to others more effectively than conventional preachers can. Doing so, he plays into the biases and neuroses of the statist Left . . . and neither side seems to mind.

The establishment Left has had many cultural victories; one of these is the effective blurring of people’s personal and political lives. This blurring is a major reason that Tebow shoulders more political connotation than any other sports celebrity in recent years. But “the personal is political” trivializes and cheapens political discourse. It reducesto stale cliché debates that should be vibrant and essential.

Tebow courts this clichéd response. While still a college player, he filmed a television ad for an anti-abortion advocacy group. The ad was sophisticated and avoided strident words or tone. The already-famous athlete and his mother talked about health troubles she’d experienced while expecting him; she implied that another woman might have chosen to have an abortion. And they ended by making a pitch for choosing life.

The usual gang of idiots in the popular media — the execrable Bill Maher, the fey Jon Stewart, the undeservedly self-impressed Rachel Maddow — rose to the bait and have taken turns pillorying Tebow. But all of this is a kind of Kabuki ritual. The outrage is canned, the excess seems calculated. The TV people make cheap points with their core audiences; the Christian athlete gets a red badge of courage with his.

I’ve long been interested in the “secret handshake” that some public figures signal — perhaps instinctively — to the public. Whether that public is adoring or loathing. To me, Bill Clinton remains the master signaler of our times; he conveyed loyalty to the statist Left, even though his actions sometimes betrayed their faith. The pop singer Madonna does it, too; she conveys much more than she actually delivers on stage.

The current president has some of this — but seems more passive and less masterful than Slick Willie or the Material Girl.

Tebow is very good at this signaling. His recent success on the football field is, as he says, only part of a more-ambitious agenda. His opposite number on the Patriots — future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — may be better at his job. But Tebow’s playing a bigger game.




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