Tim Tebow

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.

Concerning the prayers of Tim Tebow

Moments after the New England Patriots smashed his Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow stood before a wall of reporters and said exactly what anyone who has been paying attention already knew he was going to say. The Patriots, he stressed, "came out and they played well and they executed well and you've got to give them a lot of credit."

Then Tebow interrupted himself to deal with a higher matter: "But before I talk about that, I just want, you know, to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and thank my teammates for the effort that they put forth, not just tonight but this whole season."

Please note one crucial detail in this thanksgiving statement.

In a recent Poll Position survey, 43.3 percent of the respondents said they believed divine intervention played some role in Tebow's roller-coaster season, including that stunning Broncos playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, 42.3 percent said God was not helping Tebow out.

This schism is one reason Tebow critics enjoyed asking some obvious questions after the Patriots loss: So what happened? Did God tune out all of Tebow's prayers?

People can laugh all they want, noted the leader of a Denver-area megachurch that has long had its share of Bronco players in the pews. The key is that Tebow -- as is the norm for athletes who are believers -- always offers prayers of thanksgiving after losses, as well as victories.

"If people have been listening to anything that Tim Tebow has been saying, then they know that he never prays to win. He has said that publicly many times," said the Rev. Brad Strait, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Englewood.

"The key is that many people who keep commenting on this situation don't know very much about why believers pray. It seems that they think the main reason, or even the only reason, that people pray is to ask God to give them things. ... It's that old Santa Claus equals Jesus thing. You mix all of that up with football and this is what you get."

In this case, what you get is controversy about a hunky missionary kid who continues to confound his critics on and off the playing field. Meanwhile, choirs of Tebow fans -- saith an early January ESPN poll -- have made him the America's most popular athlete.

His life began, of course, in a dangerous pregnancy and his mother's decision to reject doctors' advice to abort provided the hook for a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Tebow's drive to excel in high-school football -- while being home-schooled -- fueled headlines long before his two national championships and Heisman Trophy win as a Florida Gator. Then there was the 2009 press conference in which he cheerfully answered a question about his sex life, pledging to remain chaste until marriage. This put Tebow on the radar of every comic with a microphone.

This recent blast by liberal talk-radio star Mike Malloy hit all the crucial notes.

"Tim Tebow, of course, is a massive irritation," he said. "God, I hate crappy-ass displays of public religiosity, especially, especially, in a sporting event. This to me is vile, just vile, for these fundamentalist Christians to find divine intervention -- in a pass for a football game, in Denver, Colorado? Oh well, it's their religion, not mine."

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Tebow doesn't believe God is pulling strings for him, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, where the student body includes Tebow's brother, Peter.

The fact that Tebow gives thanks after a game doesn't imply that he prayed for victory before the kickoff, said Groothuis.

"He always says that he is giving thanks to 'my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' which says, to me, that he is thanking God for his salvation. Then again, he could be thanking God that he is a professional football player and that he has a national platform. He could be thanking God that he didn't get hurt during the game," he said.

"If you look at this logically, it doesn't make sense for him to thank God after a loss if he has been doing what people seem to think he has been doing -- which is praying to win. ... There's one other point that's important. Tebow isn't cursing God after he loses, that's for sure."

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."

Trying to focus on the future

As strange as it may sound, the head of Focus on the Family is trying to find just the right place in his Colorado Springs office to put a framed copy of an editorial from the New York Times. Under the headline "Super Bowl Censorship," it defended the Christian group's right to buy a prime chunk of airtime, even if the ad focused on the decision by an ailing Pam Tebow to ignore her doctors' advice to abort her fifth child -- a son named Tim. Protests by the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and others, it said, were "puzzling and dismaying."

"The would-be censors are on the wrong track," proclaimed the Times. "Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about. ... Viewers can watch and judge for themselves. Or they can get up from the couch and get a sandwich."

Where should Focus on the Family President Jim Daly place this memento? After all, it represents a major event during the final days of founder Dr. James Dobson, the child psychologist who over three decades built one of America's most powerful radio franchises and evangelical ministries. Dobson's farewell broadcast was Feb. 26th.

Daly, who became Focus on the Family president in 2005, is thinking about putting the framed editorial between two photos. In one, Daly is standing with President George W. Bush. In the other, he is standing with President Barack Obama.

"I'll find a spot," he said. "That would be a rather symbolic place to put it."

Daly has worked for Focus on the Family for two decades, focusing on building a global audience of 200 million listeners. He is well aware that some loyalists on the legendary Focus on the Family mailing list -- a major resource when raising money or inspiring grassroots support on hot issues -- are worried about recent strategic moves.

Take, for example, Daly's decision to attend an Obama White House conference on fatherhood. Some also questioned the decision not to fight CBS over the right to explicitly mention abortion in the Super Bowl ad.

"I don't want to underestimate their concerns," said Daly. "There are people who want to see more of the hard-hitting approach. The thing is, I'm not sure that approach still works today."

While it's impossible to say if Focus on the Family will take another Super Bowl plunge, the mainstream-media approach used in the Tebow family ad is a sign to what lies ahead, and not just because the Heisman Trophy winner will soon be playing in nearby Denver.

The goal all along was to use the brief advertisement to point viewers toward a longer version of the Tebow story at FocusOnTheFamily.com, said spokesman Gary Schneeberger. Thus, the crucial post-Super Bowl numbers were these -- 92 million of the 106 million who watched the game told researchers they saw the Tebow ad. Among those who did, 6 percent said the spot and the furor surrounding it made them think twice about their beliefs on abortion. In all, about 1.5 million people went online to watch the more detailed Tebow feature.

Daly and Schneeberger insisted that there was no sneaky, brilliant strategy to hide the ad's contents, other than their desire to keep pressure off Tebow as he prepared for his final college bowl game. Nevertheless, a giant media storm was triggered by an early report that Focus on the Family was planning a Super Bowl ad, coupled with a later wire-service story that the Tebows were involved. The result, said Schneeberger, was the equivalent of $32 million worth of free ink and airtime in national media.

"The people who didn't approve of the ad that they had never seen ended up doing all of our talking points for us," he said. "We didn't have to say anything else."

The key lesson, agreed Daly, was that it's possible to "reach out and hold a dialogue" with an audience larger than the Focus on the Family mailing list. The Super Bowl project proved that the ministry could frame a message in such a way that "people outside of our niche had a chance to catch it and it does appear that some caught it. We think that's progress."