One subject seemed to dominate the religion news this fall: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow’s overt religiosity. Many conservative Christians admire and imitate it, while it makes some others—including liberal Christians, Jews, and Muslims—uncomfortable.
In any case, it’s hard to miss. In addition to kneeling on the field, Tebow habitually refers to God, and specifically to Jesus Christ. At the end of every game, he says, “First I would like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
There has been, however, very little criticism of Tebow from Jewish, Muslim, or mainstream secular quarters. It’s not because we’d be afraid to speak our minds: there are other reasons.
First, we all know that football, however public its appeal, is a private enterprise, not the government. (Stadium construction sometimes receives support from local or state government, but the teams don’t.) Football is a business, and businesses are free to endorse religion, tolerate it, or oppose it, in accord with their owners’ beliefs and their conclusions about what is good or bad for business overall.
Second, Tim Tebow is, by all accounts, exceptionally decent and likable. The Muslim author Ibrahim Abdul-Matin writes:
Tebow is unique because he is both an underdog and a winner. He is both humble and non-judgmental—a dynamite combination for any human being. Finally, his fellow teammates love him, he does not drink, smoke or do drugs, he is celibate, unmarried, and he has a winning smile and personality.
Hardly anyone claims that Tebow, the son of Baptist missionaries, is trying to force his religion on others. There’s wide consensus that he’s merely expressing his own belief—something that everyone has the right to do.
This hasn’t stopped news media from trying to stir up controversy. Fox News attempted to connect it to their annual complaints about the so-called war on Christmas, claiming that those who questioned his public displays of religion were waging war on Christians.
The Wall Street Journal asked representatives of various religions about Tebow, specifically whether they might preach about him. Rabbi Joe Black, of Temple Emanuel in Denver, replied,
Tim Tebow is broadcasting the fact that he believes in God. God is actively involved in his life. We call ourselves people of faith. Is that how we perceive God? And if not, how do we perceive God?
At Temple Sinai in Denver, Rabbi Rick Rheins, a Colts and Bengals fan, said that he might preach about Tebow if the Broncos made it into the playoffs.
The chairman of the Colorado Muslim society, Khaled Hamideh, said,
I know I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but I admire somebody who thanks God for everything that He gave him. The team has rallied around him not because of his religious beliefs but because they believe this guy has something in him that pushes him the right way.
Almost all American Jews over the age of 50 know the Lord’s Prayer—a Christian text, although it expresses Jewish theology—from memory, because we were made to recite it every day in public school until 1962. Abdul-Matin, observing that football tends to be a very Christian sport, says that he knows it, too, but because he played football, and teams at all levels pray it in the locker room.
That’s the only part of this that is a genuine issue for us. Pro football can do whatever it wants, but I’d be concerned if Jewish players were, or felt, marginalized in public-school sports because they chose not to participate in non-Jewish prayer.