Kirk Cameron, Tim Tebow and contemporary Christian tribalism

Kirk Cameron, Tim Tebow and contemporary Christian tribalism April 23, 2012

I want to expand on the previous post about the tribalist celebration of Christian athletes — the quest for “the new Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow.” And to illustrate what I mean, I want to turn again to our old friend Cam-Cam, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron.

Lauren Markoe of Religion News Service just profiled Cameron: “From prime-time heartthrob to ‘Hollywood freak.’” Markoe, accurately, notes that Cameron’s embrace of tribal Christianity has put him at odds with many of his fellow actors:

Hollywood scolds and even mocks Cameron who, at 41, is a vocal evangelical Christian, and, in the view of many of his fellow celebrities, kind of a jerk.

Cameron’s more recent acting and directing projects almost always carry a deeply Christian message, and he knows he is now the darling of only a certain segment of America. He even seems to take some pride in the fact.

“I’m kind of a Hollywood freak,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t really turn out the way most people turn out growing up in this industry.”

… In the past 15 years, Cameron has starred in the “Left Behind” franchise, a series of Christian thrillers. … He also headlined the 2008 drama Fireproof, the highest-grossing independent film of 2008, about a firefighter who saves strangers but neglects his wife. Christian critics loved it. Mainstream critics found it preachy.

As he has pursued his Christian film projects, Cameron also founded, in 2002, a radio and television ministry, “The Way of the Master,” with New Zealand preacher Ray Comfort. The two men joined forces to inspire and teach Christians to evangelize, and the shows have further endeared Cameron with committed, traditional Christians.

Markoe’s thesis about Cameron’s views creating friction with his Hollywood colleagues is true. His sarcastic ignorance about evolution, embrace of Bartonian dishonesty about history, and his smiling condemnation of the alleged gay menace to civilization are, indeed, views that set him at odds with most other actors, writers and artists (as amusingly illustrated in this Funny Or Die video starring some of his fellow former child actors).

But Markoe doesn’t examine the biggest problem that most actors and artists have with Kirk Cameron: his utter lack of seriousness about the craft of acting. Other actors don’t respect Cameron because he’s a bad actor. And they don’t like Cameron because he’s a bad actor who’s satisfied with being a bad actor and shows no interest in becoming a better actor.

They’re working. He’s coasting. There’s a reason why he is known as “former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron” while you’ll never read about “former Growing Pains star Leonardo DiCaprio,” or “former Empire of the Sun star Christian Bale” or “former Andy Griffith Show star Ron Howard,” or “former My So-Called Life star Claire Danes.”

Not every former child actor goes on to a career in the profession, of course, but Cameron’s career has traced a path that seems, to those who care about the craft of acting, to be cheating. He has exploited evangelical tribalism to carve out a niche for himself in which not very good will always be accepted as “good enough,” just so long as he keeps saying the expected things about evolution and gays and Jesus when he’s not acting.

That’s damaging to everyone involved. It’s bad for the art and profession of acting, it’s bad for Cameron himself, and it’s bad for the tribal audiences that settle for not-even-second-best. Cameron’s shortcut to pseudo-stardom within the tribal bubble is the same path exploited by dozens of mediocre musicians in the execrable “contemporary Christian music” industry.

In Markoe’s profile of Cameron, Patton Dodd talks about the tribal embrace of Kirk Cameron and compares it to the recent evangelical enthusiasm for Tim Tebow:

“It’s kind of like the difference between Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow,” Dodd said. Both are NFL star quarterbacks and believers. “But Manning is quieter about his faith. It’s just as fervent and strong by every indication. But he hasn’t made it part of his public image and Tebow has — and Cameron’s the same way.”

That’s an interesting comparison in that it illustrates what’s most important in this tribalistic approach to Christianity. Simple Christian faith isn’t what really matters. If it were then you’d expect evangelicals to be more fervent in their adulation for Manning than for Tebow because, well, Manning’s just a much, much better quarterback (just ask John Elway). But the key factor isn’t religious faith or devotion, it’s the culture war. Christian athletes like Manning or Albert Pujols don’t excite the tribalists the way Tebow does because, even though they’re among the all-time greats, they’re not culture warriors intent on reaffirming the relative righteousness of the tribe.

The good news for Tebow, though, and for all the Christian athletes celebrated within that tribal bubble, is that Kirk Cameron’s shortcut is not available to them. Professional sports doesn’t allow for a parallel subculture in which not very good will ever be good enough. Tebow’s public displays of faith and the things he says off the field may matter most to his tribalist fans, but unlike Cameron he doesn’t have the option of not caring about his craft and profession.

Because of that, Tebow will never become an “NFL freak” in the way that Cameron has become a “Hollywood freak.” He’s trying to be the best quarterback he can be. He’s doing his job as best he can and because of that, win or lose, he’s earning the respect of his peers — and of even his non-tribalist fans — in a way that Cameron isn’t.

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  • Guest

    I don’t have the energy to get into this, but Indiana Wesleyan University has recently inducted Cam-Cam into their “Society of World Changers”, in the company of those including Bill and Gloria Gaither, James Dobson, and the founder of Chick-Fil-A (and also, incongruously and non-infuriatingly so far as I can tell, Tony Dungy and Dr. Benjamin Carson). They don’t mean this ironically. They are dead serious.

  • I’m glad you added the last few sentences on the subject of Tim Tebow. I find his ostentatious displays of religiosity pretty distasteful–was Mathew 6:5 not included in his family bible? But as a football player, he seems to be a courageous, hardworking  athlete, who is working like hell to improve. Professional athletes, who can spot a coward or a phony, seem eager to accept him as a teammate. 

  • “Tebow’s public displays of faith and the things he says off the field
    may matter most to his tribalist fans, but unlike Cameron he doesn’t
    have the option of not caring about his craft and profession.Because
    of that, Tebow will never become an “NFL freak” in the way that Cameron
    has become a “Hollywood freak.” He’s trying to be the best quarterback
    he can be.”

    Ummm, I direct your attention to Jon Kitna.

    As the saying goes, “this is the NFL, and you are a crummy quarterback Not For Long.” And yet, Kitna persists. Persisted? Anyway, when Carson Palmer came to the Bengals, Kitna stated that his job as backup QB was to make sure that Palmer was a “Christian quarterback”, whatever that meant.

  • Cameron also seems to enjoy spreading lies and hurting people in a way that I just haven’t seen from Tim Tebow. Tebow’s behavior might be annoying at times, but at least it’s well-meant and at least he’s not actually hurting anyone else. When Cameron goes on CNN to talk about how homosexuals are destroying Western civilization, that’s hurting people.

  • Lori

    Cameron’s more recent acting and directing projects almost always carry a deeply Christian message,

    This is a perfect example of the thing that bugs me most about coverage of Cameron and his ilk—the fact that intentionally or not people promote Cameron’s agenda by going along with the idea that his projects have “a deeply Christian message”. We’ve now spent several years talking about the fact that his best known project is deeply a lot of things, but Christian isn’t one of them. Some of Cameron’s other projects seem to be more theologically sound, but that’s not saying much.

  • Who would take “evangelizing” advice from this doorknob?  Hey. Kirk, if you are alienating people by being a jerk, that….SORT OF MEANS YOU ARE A TERRIBLE EVANGELIST.  You want the godless heathens to LIKE you, that is sort of how the whole thing works.  But, are Fred points out, Kirk Cameron doesn’t care about actually evangelizing.

  • Lori


    Tebow’s behavior might be
    annoying at times, but at least it’s well-meant and at least he’s not
    actually hurting anyone else.

    I don’t know. I definitely agree that Tebow doesn’t have the meanness
    the Cameron has, but I still think his anti-choice crusading is

    My difference in attitude toward the 2 men comes at least in part from
    the fact that I think Tebow is something of a victim of his own story in
    a way that Cameron is not.The Tebow anti-choice ads are the family story about Tim. Growing up with that kind of mythos has to be a burden and FSM help him if he ever deviates from the chosen path in the wrong way.

  • Becca Stareyes

     My mother, who falls squarely into Liberal Non-Churchgoing Christian, is a Tim Tebow fan because she likes his quarterbacking and pretty much ‘he seems like a nice young man’.  I can’t see someone like my mother being a Kirk Cameron fan (besides of his work as a kid), because… well, most people like my mother would be unlikely to even see his current work or hear of him besides YouTube clips of him voicing his opinions on homosexuality and evolution.  Mr. Cameron seems to be all right with being an actor in solely Evangelical productions, which seems to mark him as an Evangelical Christian actor rather than an actor who is an Evangelical Christian*.  Tebow, for all that he is very loud about his religion, can’t join a Christian Football League instead of the NFL, which means that people outside his tribe have access to his performance and can form an opinion on him besides ‘has-been has opinions’. 

    * A bit like if Tom Cruise stopped doing major roles and only did independent films promoting Scientology.  Except Cruise is a lot more well-known than Cameron. 

  • aunursa

    “It’s kind of like the difference between Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow,” Dodd said. Both are NFL star quarterbacks and believers. “But Manning is quieter about his faith. It’s just as fervent and strong by every indication. But he hasn’t made it part of his public image and Tebow has — and Cameron’s the same way.”

    Now I understand why I root for Peyton Manning and against Tim Tebow.

  • Lori


    A bit like if Tom Cruise stopped doing major roles and only did
    independent films promoting Scientology.

    If only Cruise had actually done this before he optioned One Shot. (No, I am never not going to stop being irritated about that movie.)

  • Caravelle

    Ah, washed up child movie/TV stars. Did you see that three-part internet series former Doogie Howser star Neil Patrick Harris was in ? HA !

    (… yes, it was very funny. No, that’s just how I laugh.)

  • AndrewSshi

     Cameron’s evangelism is something like the “apologetics” of Josh McDowell.  It’s not meant for reaching out to those who don’t believe but rather for shoring up the belief of those who already do.

  • Actually, why *isn’t* there a Christian Football League catering to the evangelical subculture?  Either this is a business opportunity, or the reason why it can’t exist is probably interesting.  Is deep and discerning sports connoisseurship just too widespread for it to work?

  • …or are there just too few opportunities for tribal signaling during the actual gameplay?

  • …Come to think of it, I think the reason is regional: the heart of US subcultural evangelicalism is in the South, and people just take football too seriously there, from the cradle onward.  There’s no way they could not know the difference.

  • I wonder if some of this is because, just like bad theology and bad writing are connected, bad theology and bad acting are connected.  Being a good actor, I’d imagine, requires an ability to step into somebody else’s emotions and thoughts and experiences in a very real, deep way.  And while being able to do that wouldn’t necessary make somebody a good person (I’m sure lots of great actors aren’t very good people), the inability to do so would probably make you both a bad actor and a not-so-good person. It seems to me that Cameron’s brand of evangelicalism would find that kind of identifying-with-the-other something to be avoided.

  •  Well, change doesn’t necessarily have to be for the better…

  • Mary Kaye

    Dorothy Sayers wrote some essays about the relationship between God and work, and if I can venture to paraphrase her, said that you can’t offer your work up to God unless you care about the work itself.  If you are dedicated to doing what you do well, you can brew beer or sweep floors to the glory of God, but you can’t hold it in contempt and hope for anything good to come of it.  

    This is why, although I wildly disagree with her political beliefs, for me the most offputting thing about Sarah Palin is that she resigned her governorship halfway through for no very apparent reason. I have occasionally voted for Republicans (not lately) but I would never vote for someone of any party who treated her office so heedlessly.

  • JayemGriffin

    I think this has come up before on the site (probably in connection with Left Behind), but there’s a school of thought which I love that holds that doing your job well is a moral imperative. I’ve always heard it connected to the concept of “calling”- if God calls you to be an actor or a teacher or a stockbroker, it is therefore your duty to be the best possible actor/teacher/stockbroker you can be. If you don’t do a good job at your calling, you’re disrespecting God. By this logic, Cameron isn’t just a terrible actor- he’s also a terrible Christian because of it.

  • I read an article on introversion a few weeks ago, and there was a brief interview with an Evangelical minister who felt ‘sinful’ because of his occasional need for quiet and solitude.    This idea that loudly advertising ones faith is the mark of true faith is not the historical Christian default; unless you want to discount the entire history of monks, hermits, ascetics, (Or maybe they are all too papist for you?)  Rather this is a particular American sensibility that some on the religious right have internalized and sanctified out of an authoritarian need to be ‘normal’.  It’s the same Scotch-Irish notion that a real man aggresively asserts himself that produced such devils to the White middle class as Terell Owens or Muhammad Ali .

    Or, has been pointed out in one of the articles linked to here;  Tebow’s act of pointing at the sky is the same thing as the sort of endzone dance that would get a Black wide receiver flagged for ‘taunting’.

  • Jessica_R

    Matt , I think you’ve got it. Evangelicals will listen to bad pop and watch bad movies, but they will not watch someone play sports badly.

    Lori, Fred’s done some great posts on just that. On how acting, storytelling are acts of empathy and when you stake your whole idenity of fear of The Other and sniffing that you’re better than Those People it hurts you ability to tell meaningful stories, meaningful stories by their nature being universal, and your ability if you’re an actor to think, “hmm what would my character do in this siutation?”

    Consider that for modern American Christianity sins are always deliberate acts of thumbing your nose at god. So Cameron couldn’t play, “hmm my character is so hungry and desperate they’re going to steal food.” Or an Evangelical audience would reject a woman sleeping with an official in order to get information for the resistance. As the reasons for her action do not trump at all the massive “sin” of an unmarried woman, or woman really, having sex.

  • hidden_urchin
  • aunursa

    Kirk Cameron doesn’t know he’s a terrible actor.  He thinks he’s a good actor.

    Reminds me of a horror film from several years ago.  I think the dialogue went something like this…

    Haley Joel Osment: I see bad actors.
    Bruce Willis: Off the set?
    Haley Joel Osment: [shakes head]
    Bruce Willis: While the camera is rolling?
    Haley Joel Osment: [nods]
    Bruce Willis: Bad actors, like minor roles? Extras?
    Haley Joel Osment: Walking around as if they’re superstars. They don’t see anybody but themselves. They only see what they want to see.  They don’t realize how awful they really are.
    Bruce Willis: How often do you see them?
    Haley Joel Osment: All the time.

  • Lori

    Matt , I think you’ve got it. Evangelicals will listen to bad pop and watch bad movies, but they will not watch someone play sports badly. 

    I’m sure some of them would, but almost certainly not enough to justify the cost. The kinds of playing-t0-the-tribe movies that Cameron makes are really low budget. It’s not that tough to raise the money it takes to make them and you don’t have to get that many people to watch them/buy the DVD to turn a profit.

    A sports league isn’t like that at all. It costs, even when it’s comparatively low rent, and those costs are on-going making it very difficult to get the numbers to work at all. Just look at the attempts to create football leagues that are not the NFL. To even get one off the ground you have to have a lot of people with a lot of money who just want to own a team and don’t care that the best they’re going to get from it for years and years is a tax write-off on the losses and the hope of someday being able to buy into an NFL franchise.

    I suspect it would be all but impossible to find enough tribal Evangelicals with deep enough pockets and a willingness to put that money into a Jesus league. It would never be a foot in the door of the NFL and there are so many other ways you can actually make money off the tribe that it just doesn’t make sense.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    The Religion News Service article asks: “Which raises the question: Can an actor be both a pop culture icon and an outspoken Christian?”

    Which raises a question of its own: Has Religion News Service never heard of Tyler Perry?

  • Mary Kaye

    The virtue I find lacking here is magnanimity:  as Webster said in 1828–

    MAGNANIMITY, n. [L. magnanimitas; magnus, great, and animus, mind.]
    Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters
    danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the
    possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence,
    which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to
    sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of
    useful and noble objects.

    It’s the refusal to gloat when you win or whine when you lose, and (as Wikipedia says) the avoidance of pettiness.  Tribal Christianity has become very petty and small-minded; it may have big political ambitions but it doesn’t have bigness of soul.

  • Persia

    I also think sports is a much easier arena to judge merit in. You either score a point or you don’t. Do you believe Kirk Cameron’s performance? You’re probably more likely to if you already like the guy and are rooting for him.

  • It would be kind of redundant, wouldn’t it? A HUGE number of sports stars like to thank god every time they score, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is quite a large organization in High Schools and colleges. 

  • The first time I watched the CCOKC video, I missed the title card introducing Maureen Flannigan and didn’t recognize her until she stopped time. At which point I quite literally fell over laughing.

  • Oh, I forgot about those. Still, at least he’s trying to make it about his personal history. I dunno. I disagree with the message he’s promoting but it doesn’t seem as mean-spirited and hateful as the kind of things that Cameron keeps saying.

  • friendly reader

    In a Manning/Tebow parallel… how many people know that Denzel Washington is an intensely devout Christian?

    Cameron would never take roles as a Muslim (“Malcolm X”), a corrupt cop (“Training Day”), a drug kingpin (“American Gangsters”), the attorney for a gay man (“Philadelphia”), or really 90% of Denzel Washington’s roles, really. Because Denzel Washington is an actor who acts, and Cameron is a Evangelical actor who Evangelical acts.

    This is why we respect Denzel Washington and not Kirk Cameron.

  • Lori

    I disagree with the message he’s promoting but it doesn’t seem as mean-spirited and hateful as the kind of things that Cameron keeps

    Oh I agree. Tebow is not being intentionally hateful in the way that Cameron is. I think his message is terribly damaging on several levels, but I don’t think that’s his intent. Intent isn’t magic, but it does effect how I see the person, which is why I dislike Kirk Cameron a lot and I don’t have any personal animus towards Tebow. I think he’s annoying and not cut out to be an NFL QB, but I don’t dislike him.

  • MaybeKay

    Denzel’s a good actor, but I can’t say I respect him much. He recently made a comment where he associated atheism with lying, murdering, and sociopathy.  So yeah.

  • I’m reading Twilight and was just thinking yesterday about what Fred’s posted before on this theme.

    I’ve read a lot of riffs on Twilight, analyses of Twilight, ranting about Twilight, etc. But I had not realized how terrible Stephenie Meyer’s writing is — nothing anyone had written or said on the subject seems to emphasize this quite enough. That may not be possible. I expected the story to be not very well told. But Meyer doesn’t even seem to be trying to tell a story at all. I don’t know what she was thinking when she wrote this thing, but it can’t have been about putting in her best effort, or even any effort as far as I can tell. I mean, yes, she completed a few novels (sort of), and I do have to give her credit for that. I guess. 

    This does seem to be something right-wing Christian entertainers are particularly prone to do in this country. And then they get applauded for it. It’s not even half-assing — there’s no sign that there was ever any attempt to dedicate any part of their asses at all. Reading Twilight is akin to watching Kirk Cameron act: there is no there there. It’s like a wedding night that unexpectedly ends with one’s husband locking himself in the study without even bothering to say goodnight.

  • Will Hennessy

    Oh, this reminds me–at the risk of sounding like a brain-washed heathen:


  • Turcano

     This extends into the fundamentalist school system as well.  Fundy schools don’t have the resources (and many times even the bodies) to support a school football team, so they play basketball and/or soccer instead.

    Also, starting up a fringe football league is almost guaranteed to end in disaster even without sectarian issues.  Anyone else here remember the XFL debacle?
    (For those who don’t, imagine a football league that had professional wrestling storylines.)

  • friendly reader

    I meant respecting him as an actor, respecting his craft. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear, I had to head out early this morning. :-/

  • Tonio

    they don’t like Cameron because he’s a bad actor who’s satisfied with being a bad actor and shows no interest in becoming a better actor.

    Great point, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. Cameron is the actor’s equivalent of the RTC who accuses critics of being in denial about the alleged truth that he’s preaching.

  • Tricksterson

    I read  Twilight and while it’s not that good I wouldn’t call it awful.  I really only have three problems with it:
    1:  Has anyone even considered putting Bella on anti-depressants?
    3:  Okay Bella, we get it.  Edward makes you wet.  We got it the first 300 times.

  • Tricksterson

    Soccer?  Isn’t that European and therefore part of the socialist secular agenda?

    In order to remember the XFL debacle we would have to remember the XFL.

  • Tonio

    Valid distinction. Tebow appears to have been raised with the RTC mindset, whereas Cameron adopted his in adulthood. I suspect that like many other people who had fundamentalist home-schooling, he has large masses of innocence (in the knowledge sense) about the world and about other mindsets.

    But is Tebow really not hurting anyone else? True, he’s not spreading lies or spewing homophobic hatred. But his actions risk creating an atmosphere where non-Christian stances on religion are otherized, both by players and by fans. If he were working in an office, his injecting of his religion would rightly be deemed inappropriate.

  • JonathanPelikan

    Don’t you mean “You, Potentate! You!”

  • MaybeKay

    Oh, gotcha. No worries. I’m a mess in the mornings, too.

  • Welp, only one of those was a problem I had with it, and in fact I get rather tired of people griping about what imaginary beings supposedly “really” look like, and even more tired of people griping about a romance novel dwelling on physical attraction. The what of the book is (mostly) not the problem. The how is. It is abysmally written.

  • Tricksterson

    Oh I don’t mind the idea of romance or finding someone physically attractive.    It’s that it comes up at least every other paragraph.
    I also have to wonder how the Cullen kids get away with playing hookey every time there’s a sunny day.  In the first book, the only one I’ve read, they don’t even come up with a handwave for it.
    I’ll also say, and it’s probably because of lack of familiarity with the detals of the religion, that I don’t see the Mormon propaganda, people talk about.  If it’s there it’s relatively subtle sompared to what you’ll find in say Orson Scott Card’s work.

  • P J Evans

    In places like the plains States, where many towns have schools too small for regular football, they play ‘7-man’ football. I’d think that the fundamentalist schools could manage that, if they can manage basketball and soccer teams.

  • Will Hennessy

    No I mean “Get to the third book, Fred! Your followers are hungry for more delicious Deconstructivist criticism!”

    …in the nicest way possible, of course…

  • Tricksterson

    I believe he’s put a hold on that while he works on an as yet unnamed project.  We’re all hoping it’s a book.

  • truthteller

    Tim Tebow is a sociopath. Why do I make this claim? His all consuming need for publicity and public adulation. He lovea himself more than God. He left the Trinity Baptist Church School Football Team for Nease High Football Team because the former refused to let him and his family bully his way to playing quarterback. Ryan Leaf at Florida had to go through the Tebow sociopathic I’m your best buddy thereby integrating himself in every aspect of his life. And, now Mark Sanchez has to deal with the same. 1. Tebow rents a house in the same gated community as Sanchez. 2. Starts being the third wheel with M.S’s best friend on the team going to lunch and dinner with and his wife. No doubt with Mark these occassions were foursomes as Mark actually dates women. 3. He starts being friends with everybody. Revis’s comment “the guy is even a leader at lunch he’s just so enthusiatic about it”. Well he does have the IQ of a squirrell. Watch out Mark he didn’t get any starting job by working hard alone. He’s a media hungry sociopath. In other words, he’ll make either a great televangelist or politician when his career is over in 5 years. He has to have his face on TV and the adulation of his adoring public.

  • truthteller

    Sorry not Ryan Leaf. I simply cannot recall the QB whose job he gained at UF.

    And don’t forget his private plane with call signs: