Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Say "Tim Tebow" and Americans imagine a quarterback, kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's a ridiculous joke.

Say "Colin Kaepernick" and Americans imagine another quarterback, kneeling with head bowed or with his determined eyes gazing straight ahead.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's infuriating.

"They're both Christian football players, and they're both known for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons," wrote Michael Frost, an evangelism professor at Morling College, a Baptist school in Sydney, Australia.

"One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran and attended a Baptist church during college. Both have made a public display of their faith. … This is the tale of two Christian sports personalities, one of whom is the darling of the American church while the other is reviled."

According to Frost, these men symbolize two approaches to faith that some believers think cannot be reconciled. When his weblog essay was picked up by The Washington Post the headline proclaimed: "Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees."

Around the world, Frost added, Tebow and Kaepernick represent a church "separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation and political activism.

God, Tebow and the NFL

Once upon a time, there was this controversial quarterback. Even his strongest defenders admitted that he was a fiery field general, not a conventional pinpoint passer. He made lots of big plays with his legs, dodging tacklers and creating havoc until he could unload the ball.

His throwing motion wasn't much to look at, either. Purists said he brought the ball way too low while winding up to fire it deep.

On top of all that, he was devoutly religious and very conservative. He was especially vocal about social issues, such as his belief that sex should be reserved for marriage -- period.

Talent scouts were divided. Many were sure he would never succeed in professional football, even though he was a Heisman Trophy winner. Besides, Roger Staubach had to serve as a Navy officer before he could start his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Wait a minute. You thought this was some other quarterback?

Week after week, the experts who dissect events in the National Football League have been struggling with the whole question of whether or not Tim Tebow -- an even more outspoken version of Staubach -- has a future with the Denver Broncos, other than as a third-string quarterback carrying a clipboard on the sideline.

The problem at the local level, of course, is the choir of Tebow supporters chanting his name in the stands. The problem at the national level is that it's rare for a backup quarterback to be so popular that his NFL jersey was last year's third highest-selling -- which is up in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady territory.

The big problem is that it's hard for fans to separate Tebow the inexperienced professional quarterback from Tebow the experienced missionary and evangelical superstar. Journalists are struggling with the Tebow culture wars, as well.

"Tebow had to be himself, which means letting everyone know exactly where he stands, consequences be damned," noted columnist Deron Snyder of the Washington Times. "Essentially he drew a line that separated him from everyone else -- not in a better-than-thou sort of way, but a marked distinction nonetheless -- and we've been picking sides ever since.

"Along the way, we've had difficulty in keeping our opinions unencumbered. Thoughts on Tebow the Christian get mixed with Tebow the Quarterback. Tebow the Hyped is entangled with Tebow the Great Guy."

Over at the sports Vatican called ESPN, veteran scribe Rick Reilly has had enough of what he called a "stained glass window" quarterback controversy.

In particular, Reilly is tired of getting waves of emails that sound like this one from West Virginia: "You only bash Tebow because he is a Christian and he does not fit into your pop culture mold of great athletes."

Actually, noted Riley, Tebow is not the first muscular Christian to take the field.

"Whose god Tim Tebow worships has zero to do with my criticism of him. It's his business," he wrote. "Like I care. Tebow is about the 1,297th-most outwardly Christian athlete I've covered. He doesn't stick his god down my throat. Doesn't genuflect after touchdowns. Doesn't answer every question with, 'Well, first, let me thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and, yes, I think I did pull my groin in the third quarter.'

"And even if he did, it wouldn't affect what I write about him. I've covered openly devout athletes for 33 years. Lord knows I'm used to it."

Yes, there have been plenty of other traditional believers in professional sports and most of them managed to avoid controversy. However, they were safe precisely to the degree that they remained silent on issues that linked their faith to hot-button moral, cultural and, in this age, political questions.

Snyder, for example, stressed that quarterback Kurt Warner was a strong believer who avoided controversy. That's true -- sort of.

The only problem is that Warner did get caught in a media firestorm during the 2006 World Series, when he appeared in an advertisement opposing a Missouri bill supporting embryonic stem cell research.

The bottom line: Athletes who speak out can expect media fallout.

"The accelerant in this debate is religion, which along with race and politics forms our trinity of third-rail topics," concluded Snyder. "Tebow isn't a litmus test for faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ, but that won't stop the saints and the aints from issuing grades."

God and the NFL giants (again)

One of the big questions during last year's National Football League playoffs was whether Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears would make it to the final game.

It was the stuff of headlines. After all, it would make history if two African-American head coaches reached the Super Bowl. However, both men went out of their way to stress that it was also symbolic that two devout Christians were poised to compete, as friends, on their sport's biggest stage.

"I?m so happy for Lovie, who does things the right way, without cursing and shows that things can be done differently," said Dungy, in a pre-game report by Baptist Press. "We give God all the credit."

Dungy and Smith talked the talk and tried to walk the walk, while armies of mainstream journalists responded by ignoring most of the Godtalk.

Sportswriters never know quite what to do when athletes and coaches turn into preachers and evangelists. It's an old tension, one that been around since the birth of what historians call "muscular Christianity" in mid-19th century Victorian England.

Then, in the early 20th century, the "flying Scotsman" Eric Liddell proved that -- with the right blend of skill and charisma -- a superstar athlete could hold his own in the pulpit. The Olympic champion, whose story was later told in the Academy Award winning movie "Chariots of Fire," inspired legions of athletes to dare to be evangelists, especially in youth rallies organized by Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups.

So what are journalists supposed to do when gridiron giants start holding hands and forming prayer circles at midfield? It's one thing to point in thanksgiving toward heaven after a touchdown. Most journalists think it's something else to mention Jesus Christ a dozen times a minute on live television.

Take, for example, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida. The first words he uttered in his nervous acceptance speech was: "I'd just like to first start off by thanking my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who gave me the ability to play football."

This quotation didn't appear in any mainstream news reports, wrote sportswriter Kathy Orton at Her "On Faith" column ran with this blunt headline: "Tebow Talks God, Media Ignores Him."

Orton noted that columnist Michael Wilbon offered this explanation for why journalists ignored Tebow's testimony.

"People are entitled to express their religious beliefs whenever and wherever," said Wilbon, known for his work with the Post and ESPN. "But a newspaper (or network) has an obligation to serve a community of people that have all kinds of religious beliefs. ... There are times when we explore the relationship of competition and spirituality ... but I know I'm not going to be hijacked by those feelings, to let someone preach their beliefs when they're not important to what's going on."

In other words, one person's bold "evangelism" is another's pushy "proselytizing."

There are also political implications lurking in the background, in an age in which recent U.S. elections -- decided by razor-thin margins -- have pivoted on moral and religious issues. Thus, it was controversial when the late Rev. Reggie White and other black superstars began speaking out on issues of marriage, family and sexuality. Dungy has made similar, but more graceful, remarks rejecting same-sex unions.

Finally, any mixture of rhetoric and hypocrisy is sure to repel many sportswriters who study locker room realities year after year. After all, it was quarterback Michael Vick who -- when facing jail time -- suddenly announced that "through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. ... I will redeem myself. I have to."

Nevertheless, Orton has decided that her colleagues need to realize that faith is a crucial element in many dramas and, thus, it's wrong to edit that out of the new. It's appropriate to ask an athlete like Tebow hard questions and then quote his answers.

"I've also seen plenty of athletes who say one thing and do another, and it's hard for me to be anything but skeptical," she said. "Maybe that is why so many sportswriters shy away from writing about religion. Because the moment we do, it comes back to haunt us when that athlete is discovered to be less than a man (or woman) of God."