Report: Tim Tebow isn’t all that controversial, actually

Nearly every week during the last NFL season, I thought the Tim Tebow news would go away. Tebow is not the first athlete to offer public expressions of faith, nor will he be the last. But almost every week offered some new media approach on Tebow where someone would express frustration over the attention he was getting while others would rush to defend him.

Now New York is all over his trade to the Jets, setting off speculation over whether he will steal attention from quarterback Mark Sanchez. Tebow was clear in his 35-minute press conference: he is excited (44 times over). It’s been fun to see some of the creativity in the reports coming out of the trade, including a Time magazine and a New York magazine piece on where Tebow could hang out with fellow evangelicals.

My favorite piece so far, though, is a piece from the New York Times on how Tebow is “a careful evangelical.” Basically, the reporters argue that when it comes down to it, Tebow really isn’t all that controversial on the evangelical spectrum of things. Yes, he has painted messages under his eyes and takes a knee to pray (dubbed Tebowing), but these gestures really shouldn’t be all that shocking. After all, an evangelical is naturally drawn to something called evangelizing.

The piece notes that during Monday’s press conference, Tebow’s faith didn’t come up right away. The reporters demonstrated in Tebow’s own words how he portrays his faith.

The subject of faith — and any mention of Jesus — did not arise until the 16th question. It seemed strange, given all of the curiosity and debate over Tebow’s methods of on-field proselytizing — from biblical verses on his cheeks; to his kneeling in prayer after touchdowns (since christened as a verb: Tebowing); to his habit of open postgame news conferences by thanking “first and foremost, my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Asked to articulate his religious beliefs, he demurred, slightly.

“We’re at a press conference for a football team, so it’s not exactly the platform to get up here and share everything you believe,” said Tebow, who attended a Southern Baptist church with his family in Jacksonville. “But I have no problem, ever, sharing what I believe. I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and that is first and foremost the most important thing in my life. For me it’s about having a relationship with Christ. And that’s pretty much it. That’s the basis of what I believe in.”

I’m not a big fan of the use of the word “proselytize,” partly because I can never spell it right but mostly because it has a negative connotation (even Wiki says so). Is a public expression of faith necessarily proselytizing? What about those who wear head coverings or pray before meals or wear a gold cross necklace? Part of the surprised attitude from reporters might stem from the fact that evangelicals don’t really have many obvious identifying features. Even an evangelical pastor probably looks more like your average Joe than a clergyman.

The piece goes into detail about Tebow’s faith, when he had a conversion moment, how he grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, how he does prison ministry. In other words, it’s a fairly typical evangelical narrative.

So when did he start becoming controversial? Of course, we all remember the Focus on the Family ad he did for the 2010 Super Bowl, which turned out to be less about abortion than most reporters seemed to expect. Even if you know the story that doctors recommended Tebow’s mother have an abortion but instead gave birth to Tebow, it wasn’t really a staunch “anti-abortion message” as some have portrayed it to be. From the Times piece, it appears that he spends more time in prisons than abortion-related gatherings. In an interview for Christianity Today, he didn’t seem to want to go in-depth on pro-life strategies. In other words, he picks and chooses his causes more carefully than media reports have portrayed. The Times piece circles back around to show how he hasn’t been all that controversial.

Such messages seem to come on his terms. When he was asked about same-sex marriage by a Washington Post reporter during his book tour last year, a publicist interjected and said it was off-topic.

And while Tebow’s name has been invoked often in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and his endorsement could be as powerful as that of any political figure, he has resisted any temptation to show support for a specific candidate.

He is, after all, just a football player. Isn’t he?

The piece shows just how political Tebow could be but hasn’t been, something other reporters seem to overlook.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    It would seem the lack of comments here proves your point. What was amazing to me is how much they let him speak on his own. Seem might even criticize it saying this could have been written by a publicist — no critics anywhere (I’m not saying that, by the way; just saying that’s a criticism someone could offer). What editor was asleep at the switch? Not even any gossip about his alleged relationships with Taylor Swift and Dianna Argon. That’s rather incredible.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thomas, thanks for your feedback. That’s true, I guess, that someone could say it was maybe/sort of a puff piece. But I would think it could potentially hurt Tebow’s image in that he wouldn’t be seen as much as a culture warrior, standing up for the faith, and all of that jazz. If the story were published three years ago, it might be a bit weird, but it’s definitely in response to all the buzz surrounding Tebow. I just kept wondering why people were so surprised by him and thought this was a nice explainer.

  • sari

    “We’re at a press conference for a football team, so it’s not exactly the platform to get up here and share everything you believe,” said Tebow,

    This quote suggests that Tebow has been advised to tone down his proselytizing (the word is used appropriately in the article).

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    sari, who knows if he’s being advised or if he decided on his own? That said, (also a vocal Christian athlete) Kurt Warner did publicly suggest that he tone it down. The use of the word proselytize in the particular sentence I thought was unhelpful:

    It seemed strange, given all of the curiosity and debate over Tebow’s methods of on-field proselytizing — from biblical verses on his cheeks; to his kneeling in prayer after touchdowns (since christened as a verb: Tebowing); to his habit of open postgame news conferences by thanking “first and foremost, my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

    By having public expressions of faith, you’re automatically proselytizing? You can’t do things or say things about your own faith without it being seen as asking others to convert? It’s not clear proselytizing or pure evangelism to me. The evangelical speak for it might be “witnessing,” but it’s not a clear call to conversion.

  • sari

    In my opinion, Tebow’s words suggest proselytizing. As a Bible Belt Jew, his words felt familiar and uncomfortable. You probably didn’t have two dozen of your dorm-mates sitting outside your dorm room and praying for your soul. In a public university setting, that would probably now constitute harassment, but it was acceptable at the time for Christians actively to target non-believers. The two, evangelizing and proselytizing, are not easily separated, since the end goal seems to be the same: conversion to a particular belief system.

    When Tebow speaks of the response to his eyeblack or commercial, he speaks in terms of eliciting responses (so many Tweets, Google searches, surveys pre- and post-Tim on people’s position on pro-life). It’s possible that what started as evangelizing shifted to proselytizing as he realized the impact of his actions on people. He seems quite cognizant of his position as a role model.

    One thing that might be helpful in distinguishing evangelizing from proselytizing is to take the belief system into account. Missionary work leading to conversion is a very big part of many Christian traditions. Tebow comes from just such a background.

  • Jeff

    “Missionary work leading to conversion is a very big part of many Christian traditions. Tebow comes from just such a background.”

    As if there were anything wrong with that, per se.

    People have a right to proselytize and people have a right to convert.

    People with their pants in a bunch about Tim Tebow wouldn’t mind him if what he professed were things in which they believed — i.e. relativism, emotivism, consumerism, et al.

  • sari

    I addressed Sarah’s comment that proselytize was misused in the article. In my opinion, and, it seems, yours, the Times reporter used it correctly.


  • Jeff


    No. I said nothing about Tebow “proselytizing” not about Tebow “evangelizing.”

    I said that Tebow (openly and publicly) *professes* Christianity and that’s what his critics — including you — have a problem with.

    Be that as it may, however much you and others might not like it, Tebow and everyone else has a right to profess Christianity, to evangelize for Christianity, and to proselytize for Christianity.

    You and his other critics don’t have a problem with profession, evangelization, or proselytization — you have a problem with Christianity.

    You’re welcome to have that problem, but Tebow is also welcome to be a Christian and to profess, evangelize, and proselytize — though professing is all he’s really done.

  • sari

    Actually, Jeff, I responded to Sarah’s statement, nothing more.

    My feelings about Christianity are neutral. People are entitled to believe what they believe and insofar as they respect my right to do the same, I have no issue. In the case under discussion, Sarah felt that a word was used incorrectly. I disagreed. We were discussing media, not my personal beliefs.

    The example I gave was one in which a group of self-labeled evangelicals, most of them girls who lived on the same floor as I did in the dorm, chose to loudly pray for my soul right outside my room and with intent for me to hear. At the time, at the height of the Jesus movement and at a state school which boasted the largest Campus Crusade in the country, such behavior was tolerated by administration and commonly directed towards non-Christians, particularly Jews. Now such behavior would be labeled harassment.

    I personally have no problem with Tebow. Until this forum, I had never heard of him. But let’s call things what they are and not avoid using appropriate terminology because it may have negative connotations.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Let’s focus on sari’s argument on the use of the word proselytizing, but first — you had never heard of Tebow until this forum? This particular post or GetReligion in general? That surprises me.

    Anyway, thanks for discussing this question. I maintain the proselytize in the particular paragraph as Tebow was described was not the right word. If the reporter had described Tebow as sitting down, praying with someone, telling them about Jesus in order to convert them, maybe. Encouraging conversion or evangelize is probably better, though, since proselytize carries negative connotations of sort of attacking. But the word itself isn’t bad per se. I could be persuaded that it has good uses here and there. What I meant to suggest was that the way the reporter backed up the use of the term wasn’t substantial. Just by painting your face or kneeling doesn’t mean you’re outright evangelizing. Again, a lot of evangelicals would call it “witnessing,” a subtle but important distinction. The most aggressive evangelical might even say Tebow doesn’t go far enough. Anyway, I think the paragraph itself was poorly written to substantiate the word, if that makes sense. And yes, we’re here to discuss the media. Thanks!

  • sari

    It’s true, Sarah. When Tebow became a topic of discussion on this forum (millions of posts ago), I looked him up. Same with Jeremy Lin. Sports are not our thing.

    As to proselytizing, I think it’s a matter of background and degree. There is witnessing and there is witnessing. I think Christians tend to downplay the negative reactions elicited by their attempts to convert others to their religion, maybe because they feel their cause is righteous. Think about how proselytize came to have negative connotations.

    When I ask my Rabbi how he’s doing and he responds, “Barukh HaShem (Bless G-d!)”, that, to me, is witnessing to G-d’s greatness. When other Rabbis have pushed or even threatened in hopes of eliciting greater observance, that’s proselytizing. We only bother our own :>)

    To me, someone who’s been repeatedly targeted, what the reporter described was proselytizing -and- witnessing, the former demonstrated by Tebow’s understanding of how his actions influenced other people’s behavior–so many thousand people polled as having become pro-life. It was also consistent with firsthand observations of Christians with a similar mindset. This is not to disparage Tebow, though I, as a reader, am far more interested in his charitable works than I am in his professions of faith. Talk is just that. Actions to back up the talk–that’s what should be emphasized.

  • sari

    On the contrary, Jeff. I wanted to give an alternate perspective of a very common practice, one that was considered appropriate and acceptable at the time. Labeling myself a Bible Belt Jew tells the reader that I am a) Jewish, b) not from NY, and c) have firsthand experience. I may be from Florida, but I’ve also lived in Georgia, Virginia, Texas (15+ yrs), and N. California (not exactly bastions of liberalism). My in-laws live in Philly and my parents in Israel. My eight sibs are all over the place, including one who just returned from five years Down Under. Let’s get over the you and Tebow are from Florida and it’s a personal thing. Doesn’t fly.

    Without exception, this site’s contributors are Christian. With no counterweight, how could there not be bias? To really examine how religion is handled in the news, they’d need contributors who were knowledgeable about religions other than their own. Each has areas of interest and areas that, for one reason or another, are of no interest. And how many have been at the receiving end of conversion attempts? Sometimes it’s good to get another perspective, to see your coreligionists’ actions through another’s eyes. What Sarah sees one way, I see in another; neither of us has walked in the other’s shoes. She has never been Jewish and I have never been Christian. She hails from the Midwest and attended a Christian college; I hail from the Deep South and attended an enormous state university. Our religious backgrounds color our worldviews and shift our perspectives, especially in light of our personal experiences.

  • Jeff


    More of the same-old same-old from you. You cannot discuss ANYTHING except in PERSONAL terms. EVERYTHING is all about YOU and its ALWAYS all about you and NEVER, EVER about ANYTHING else. You’ll noticed that none of the contributors here and none of us who comment on their contributions argue by personal anecdote the way you do. It is truly, truly RICH for you of all people to criticize anyone else for not sticking closely enough to journalism itself. You invariably pivot from journalism to SARI the first chance you get.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hey folks, that’s it. This is about journalism, media coverage, etc. Please no more back and forth about each other. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    And thank you, Sarah. Sorry if this was digressive. I just thought some unfair things were being said and tried to respond to those things on their own given terms. I appreciate your patience. Again, thanks. All the best.

  • Jeff

    PS: For what it’s worth, I’m NOT from Florida or even from the Bible Belt. It’s quite possible to have opinions about things that aren’t PERSONAL.