Tim Tebow: Nice Guy Becomes Clanging Symbol

Say whatever you like about Tim Tebow — and my friend, the Broncos fan, says a lot, not much of it good — the man is a regular Colorado gold rush for bloggers and pundits. Three days ago, in exchange for six lines of copy, a two-paragraph block quote and a link, the Friendly Atheist got 358 shares. Thanks to Tebow, we knights of the keyboard (unrequited hat tip to Ted Williams) can work smarter, not harder.

Yesterday in the Atlantic, I read a blog post that really turned my head. Robert Wright warns non-religious people, especially those he calls “liberals,” that “dissing” Tebow is a bad idea…because it might make the other guys really mad. Extreme “religious conservatives,” who “consider themselves to be at war with the prevailing culture,” will take cracks against Tebow as cues to “reject the entire liberal agenda, ranging from gay rights to uncensored science education in the public schools.” Liberals, he advises, should be as discreet regarding the Broncos QB as the Jyllands-Posten wasn’t regarding Muhammad, prophet of Islam.

If it needs saying, there’s plenty wrong with what Wright writes, both in his premise and in his conclusions. Religious conservatives don’t simply consider themselves at war with the prevailing culture; they’re quite convinced the prevailing culture is at war with them. Pointing to the decisions of the Warren Court, for example, and to general support for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they make a good case. Nothing anyone says against Tim Tebow will do anything but confirm them in that sense of being under siege. No bone tossed him in the form of tactful silence will do anything to disabuse them of it. At Verdun, the Germans couldn’t have gotten the French to fight any less fiercely by agreeing not to draw mustaches on posters of Joan of Arc.

That’s not meant to sound cute. For a France that had been invaded and parly occupied, Joan symbolized divinely ordained resistance. The religious right craves symbols of its own. Want to know how badly? Consider Sarah Palin’s wild popularity, the quick forgiveness offered Mel Gibson (at least the first time around) and the polemics written on behalf of Carrie Prejean. Raise the banner of belief proudly, the rule seems to go, and believers will flock to it and you, no matter how rough around the edges you might be.

To me, at least, Tim Tebow seems a fitter symbol of Christian resistance than any of those three. His Christian witness is so fervent, observes Thomas Haine in First Things, he may actually get his theology wrong. Unlike Palin, he doesn’t seem at all eager to overexpose himself to an unseemly degree. He has none of Gibson’s nasty habits, nor, to all appearances, any of his prejudices. And if Tebow ever flounces out of Larry King’s studio, well, you can call me a Nichiren Buddhist.

To get an idea of just how valuable, and how versatile, a symbol of values voters values Tebow makes, check out this column written by my boss, Elizabeth Scalia. For her, Tebow represents not only a sincere and open faith in God but the sort of personal commitment to service that Big Government threatens to squash, or even replace. Like monastic communities and parish outreach agenies that serve without much expectation of reward, the philanthropic Tebow “models a different way, a different mindset, one that conforms not to times or trends but to testaments and traditions.”

I admit — I hadn’t thought of that, partly because I ignore football unless the Cardinals or the Sun Devils are having an especially good year. The fact that I’m thinking about it now is a good example of what Robert Wright should really be afraid of. As outrageous criticism provokes outraged defense, pundits start discovering signs and omens. If they do it well enough, even behind-the-curve people like me start thinking, “Wow, I guess Tim Tebow and the Benedictines have a lot in common after all. Must have been the grease paint that threw me.” The danger isn’t that attacks on our boy will make Christians vindictive, but that — as his name and image go increasingly viral — he might inspire us, even without meaning to.

If culture non-warriors want to defuse Tebow’s symbolic potential, all they have to do is start liking him. Schemes in that direction, it seems, are already being hatched. On ESPN.com, Rick Reilly confesses, “I Believe in Tim Tebow.” After watching the hero attend graciously to a single sick teenager, Reilly declares him decency personified, apparently deciding that the rest is commentary. This sort of thing happened to Joan of Arc, too — the reactionary monarchists who adopted her at the end of the 19th century might have drunk their own verbena to see feminists snatch her away in the 20th.

Anyone who wants to make Tebow Fun for the Whole Family may have to wait a little while, though. The Broncos’ loss in the playoffs has got members of Tebow’s conservative Christian base thinking, “Wait till next year.” Since that’s what they’ve been thinking since AD 33, more or less, he belongs to them now more than ever.

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