Bill Maher and Tim Tebow: Why are so so many offended by the quarterback’s faith?

Sally Jenkins
Columnist December 30, 2011

If God is liable to smite anybody around here, it’s me. When it’s smiting time, I duck, because I don’t believe in any religion that requires a building and loan payments. Nevertheless, I’m having a hard time seeing anything wrong with Tim Tebow taking a prayer knee in public. The knee seems a pretty plain and graceful statement, and it’s tiresome to see it so willfully misinterpreted. It’s the preachers from the top of Mount Idiot like Bill Maher who are hard to understand.

If you want to know Maher’s overriding philosophy on anything, you have to go back to high school and the stoner in the last row, surrounded by sycophants as he makes ugly cracks about his betters. That was the vein of the tweet that Maher chucked at Tebow on Christmas Eve, after the Broncos quarterback was intercepted three times in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. Maher wrote, “Wow, Jesus just [expletive] Tim Tebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is Tebowing, saying to Hitler, ‘Hey, Buffalo’s killing them.’ ”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Set aside the intriguing question of whether Maher would have the nerve if Tebow were Muslim. Or whether he’s funny. (He’s not, really. Monty Python is.) What’s more interesting is why Maher, and other political commentators from Bill Press to David Shuster, feel compelled to rip on Tebow simply for kneeling.

“I’m tired of hearing Tim Tebow and all this Jesus talk,” Press said, adding a profane suggestion that Tebow should shut up. They act like he’s trying to personally strip them of their religious liberty, manipulate the markets, and take over our strategic oil transport routes.

What is so threatening about Tebow? It can’t be his views. Tebow has never once suggested God cares about football. Quite the opposite. It’s Maher and company who stupidly suggest a Tebow touchdown scores one for Evangelicals whereas an interception somehow chalks one up for atheism. Anyone who listens to Tebow knows he doesn’t do Jesus talk, he’s mostly show and no tell. His idea of proselytizing is to tweet an abbreviated Bible citation. Mark 8:36. He leaves it up to you whether to look it up. When he takes a knee, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s an expression of humility. He’s crediting his perceived source, telling himself, don’t forget where you came from. On the whole, it’s more restrained than most end-zone shimmies.

So why does Tebow’s expression of faith make people so silly-crazy? Why do they care what he does?

Because he emphasizes the aspect of his talent that is given, not earned.

And that makes people nervous. The reactions to Tebow seem to fall under the category of what theologian Michael J. Murray calls “Theo-phobia.” In his essay “Who’s Afraid of Religion?” Murray argues we’re ill at ease with intrusions of personal faith. We fear they could lead to oppression, or mania, or even prove us wrong. We prefer to keep religion at the abstract distance of historical or socio-cultural discussion, the safe range described by historian George Marsden, “like grandparents in an upwardly mobile family, tolerated and sometimes respected because of their service in the past. . . but otherwise expected either to be supportive or to stay out of the way and not say anything embarrassing.”

When Tebow kneels on the field, his religion becomes challengingly present. Tebow doesn’t have to get into a bunch of Jesus Talk to put you or me in an uncomfortable state of mind. It’s more subtle than that. Murray suggests, if I have a reaction to the Knee, it’s because Tebow implies “that there is something in the universe over and above the natural which deserves my attention, allegiance, or honor and I find that distasteful or irritating.”

Just when you’re trying to mindlessly surrender to an afternoon of pleasure, Tebow begs the question, what if faith actually, well, works? Regardless of whether you believe Tebow’s athletic talent is random and indiscriminate, or bestowed and directed, when you watch his fourth-quarter comebacks it is impossible not to notice that faith is an undeniable performance enhancer, at least as powerful as any drug. For whatever reason.

Tebow isn’t the first athlete to be lifted above his apparent capacities by his beliefs. The phenomenon is hardly restricted to Evangelicals. Back in 2005 a Pakistani cricket batsman named Yousuf Youhana converted from Catholicism to Islam. The next season his batting average soared to 83.06 from 47.30. Whenever he scored 100 runs, he kneeled in the direction of Mecca and prostrated himself to Allah. He broke the world record for most test runs in a calendar year.

When asked the difference in his play, he replied that he had simply become a better man. But not everyone was comfortable with his transformation into Mohammad Yousuf, and his Mecca gazing. The Pakistani government, in an effort to curb what it saw as Islamic overzealousness, ordered the chairman of the cricket board to forbid extreme religious displays. It was interpreted as an attempt to de-Islamify the squad. In their next match, the Pakistanis lost by 51 runs.

I’ve been trying to think of other public figures who disconcerted their audience with displays of faith. Then one came to me: George Harrison. On the recent anniversary of Harrison’s death, writer Andrew Ferguson described seeing Harrison during his solo tour of the States, making 40,000 roaring people suddenly uncomfortable simply by singing about his Hinduism.

“I still marvel at the nerve it must have taken, singing about God, of all things, in front of kids thumping for rock ’n’ roll, not to mention the wised-up musicians and the cynics and pedants of the concert-reviewing press,” Ferguson wrote. Plenty of people complained about Harrison’s dragging Hinduism into concert halls, but, “Because George insisted, some of us felt obliged, for the first time in our lives, to take the idea [at least] of God seriously.”

Belittle Tebow if you must. But the trouble with shouting down Tebow’s religion, never mind the sheer offensiveness, is the same trouble with shouting down any other form of inspired expression. Do that, and you also shout down mystery, possibility, surprise. And some perfectly good questions. You drown out an awful lot that’s of interest, whether you agree with it or not.

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