From time to time, and always in an election year, evangelical Christians emerge in the media as a necessary story but a curious thing, a question mark, a confusing population in America that would be more pleasant to ignore except that there are so many of them who cast so many votes. So at least every four years, folks who are not evangelical struggle again to understand, just what exactly is one?  This year, CNN has even tried to get more specific and describe their differences in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida in an article with a title that suggests these sorts of Christians are something like, say, bears, the same kind of animal but with different breeds living in different places.

Sojourners magazine put together a pretty good roundup of answers to the question, but there’s another source for another answer that’s been on TV most Sunday afternoons. One actually doesn’t have to look too much farther than the NFL this past year for a few good specimens of evangelicals. And they just happen to be among the best quarterbacks in the league, or at least in the case of one of them, the most talked about.

That one is Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos.  His faith created a firestorm of conversation because he is so, well, evangelistic about it. He’s not, mind you, telling people what they have to believe, but rather simply bearing witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in his life. That’s a signature mark for an evangelical.   I agree with Sally Jenkins in her column that this just shouldn’t be that big of a deal. The question of why it’s become a big deal is the more interesting one.

The greater tragedy of the Tim Tebow conversation though is that it completely obscured the real faith of other, better, and more proven NFL quarterbacks who are also evangelical. I’m thinking of Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers’Aaron Rodgers.

Both of them are record-breaking, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, both have consistently performed at the highest level of the game. Both of them are devout Christians, evangelical even, and both of them are relatively quiet about it. Aaron Rodgers described his philosophy of evangelism , “I like the saying from St. Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.’ I try to live my life in a way that reflects my faith in the Lord. I don’t like to get in peoples’ faces. The best way for me is: Let your actions talk about your beliefs, start a relationship with others, then finally there is a chance for questions.”  Brees echoes this when asked how he seeks to use his platform as a “minister of the gospel.”  “Actions will always speak louder than words.”

While Brees and Rodgers are obviously well-known for their feats on the field, both are well-known and well-loved for the work of their hands off the field. For Brees and his family it’s the Brees Dream Foundation, and for Rodgers it includes working with children of single parents living at the Salvation Army. In this way, both again show what evangelicals do when they’re following their Leader. . .reaching out in love to others in need.

Both of them cite hallmark devotional characteristics of Christians as hallmarks of their own lives. Brees says he makes time every day for prayer and Bible study, an encouragement Rodgers echoes when he talks about his own efforts to “find time to daily grow in my faith. If you are not in the Word or focusing on Christ, or into prayer, you can’t help but slip at times.” 

Speaking of slipping, there’s yet another top-of-the-league, Super-Bowl winning quarterback who is evangelical, and gives yet another hallmark of what they are. We’re talking now about Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And slip he has done, famously. But more quietly, he’s been trying to put his life back together and get his life with God back together too. As David Kuo and Patton Dodd reported, Roethlisberger’s various efforts included joining an evangelical church, listening to Christian music, getting married, spending more time with family and letting go of some of the perks that come with fame. In their words, he’s ‘a prodigal son come home’. And if there’s any hallmark characteristic of an evangelical, that’s the one, or should be. Evangelicals know they’re sinners and need a savior. They know they still sin, and need forgiveness. And that’s where Jesus comes in, who is actually and finally the distinguishing mark of all stripes of Christianity, evangelicalism included, and the only one actually who completely lives up to the name.

It’s ironic, despite the predictions, that this Sunday none of these four quarterbacks are in the Super Bowl. We don’t know which team they’ll be rooting for, but we can be pretty sure what God they’ll be worshipping.   They are evangelical, after all, different kinds, same Lord. 

The Rev. Bill Haley is the Associate Rector at The Falls Church and director of formation at The Washington Institute.  

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