Tim Tebow, Ronald Reagan, and the Power of Positive Messaging

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One thing you have to say about Tim Tebow: he appreciates what he has. He's happy about it. He's thankful for it. He thinks it's good and wants to share it.

He doesn't whine when others attack him for his expressions of faith. When questioned, he doesn't let the topic be defined by the criticisms or objections of others. He simply shrugs off objections and attacks, coming back as if drawn by a homing beacon to the message that energizes him. He sets the terms of the debate: he states the proposition, and then lets others express their opinions about it.

To date, no one has succeeded in restating the Tebow proposition. Tim Tebow has faith in Jesus Christ and lives it out; when he is attacked or criticized for doing so, it is that, and nothing else, that is understood to be happening. We often see public figures undone by alternative narratives about them, with their beliefs or actions framed unflatteringly—sometimes even misrepresented—according to hostile ideologies or buried premises. But no one has been able to sell any narrative about Tebow and his faith other than the clear, straightforward one: he expresses his faith enthusiastically, and while some people support and admire him for that, others attack him.

There is an important lesson in this—if, perhaps, not the one readers expect. What I want to focus on is the power of a positive message. By a "positive message," I don't necessarily mean a cheerful, upbeat message, although a positive message often has those qualities. I mean a message that is declarative and assertive, rather than reactive; a message that stands on its own, independent of any hostility, criticisms, or threats against it.

When you deliver a positive message, it frames the rhetorical space. It is the central proposition, and other communications are reactions to it. To communicate a positive message, you have to believe something. It must be something you would act on and talk about on principle, because it is precious to you. Typically, you know of its excellence and compelling qualities from direct experience. But you have probably studied the experiences of others with it, and spent time mulling their thoughts about it. You seek to read about it and discuss it with like-minded friends and people you admire. But no matter what anyone else does, you think and speak about this thing in the terms that well up from your store of study, thought, and experience. You don't accept debate about it on anyone else's terms.

In short, when delivering a positive message, you are not on defense; you are on offense. This doesn't mean you are being deliberately offensive or trying to "score points," but you are being assertive. You have a purpose of your own: not merely to defend what you see as good, but to advertise and promote it.

It may seem awfully basic to spell out something so fundamental. But a great deal of our modern thinking has been captured by the mechanisms of the rhetorical defense, which is always spinning and triangulating to avoid positive assertions. The defensive posture predicates itself not on defining what is good but on maneuvering against the threat from what is bad. It constantly brings up fears, offenses, and grievances. It often relies on blackening people's characters and casting doubt on their motives with innuendo. Even when it doesn't, its vocabulary is limited to negative sentiments and ideas, and it conceives of its mission as a desperate attempt to prevent the onslaught of evil.

The defensive posture comes naturally to the unreconstructed human spirit. It seems easy and safe—and endlessly justifiable because of the bottomless font of threats and grievances supplied by our fallen world. But it is a weak posture, and makes the thing defended by it appear weak. Consider, for example, that Tim Tebow would be fully justified in complaining about some of the unfair, hurtful attacks on his expressions of faith. The grievances he could air are real and valid, but we instinctively recognize that focusing on them—assuming a defensive posture about them—would rob Tebow's own message of power and nobility. Would people around the world be "Tebowing" if the man himself devoted his public utterances to criticizing his critics?

This offense-defense dynamic is intrinsic to the human spirit and applies to all realms of endeavor. I have been thinking about it a great deal in relation to the crisis in which Western civilization finds itself, and I submit that the West's strategic weakness today is its inability to love, celebrate, and promote what is good in its own spiritual and philosophical heritage. Instead of living and acting on that premise, we give our minds over to grievances and fears. This reflexive practice characterizes politics as well as our daily lives.