In the News: Tebow in Fundamentalist New York

I know I’m not alone in hoping for some kind of Tim Tebow media blackout.  I was hoping the end of the football season, especially with the Broncos’ defeat, would bring some quiet to the Tebow-as-Christian-in-a-strange-land stories.  But Tebow’s move to the New York Jets brought a new round of media focus on Tebow’s style of loud public Christian-ness.

IMHO, the most interesting comment on the Tebow move came from Paul Moses at dotCommonweal.  Moses noted that the New York press tended to gasp at the incongruity of an extravagantly Christian celebrity in the extravagantly pagan Big Apple.

Moses pointed out,

The Times put it this way: “Tebow is also a somewhat incongruous fit: an outspoken Christian playing  in a city known for its extensive night life and a member of a  franchise made famous by the bachelor stylings of Joe Namath and  currently known for the profane speeches of its coach, Rex Ryan.”

And this, from the National Enquirer: “It is unclear how the pie-eyed pundit of the pigskin will respond to the multitude of temptations New York has to offer.”

Moses took such papers to task for assuming too much about life in New York City.  New Yorkers are a decidedly religious group.  Moses cited a Gallup poll from 1991 in which a majority of respondents–53%–said they prayed at least once a day.  The problem, Moses claimed, is that too many people equate Manhattan with the entirety of New York City.  In Manhattan, 17% of poll respondents claimed to be atheists.  In the Bronx, that number dwindled to 1%.

As we’ve pointed out here before, people who do not know much about Fundamentalist America often assume that religiosity goes up only with distance from big cities, education, and indoor plumbing.  It is just not true.  The myth might come from the association in the United States of conservative evangelical Protestantism with conservative religion as a whole.  But if we look at other conservative religious folks, New York City has as much of a claim to fundamentalism as anywhere else.  In the Catholic Church, for example, New York City is now home to genial Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  Dolan’s blog and very public presence inject a strain of conservative religiosity into life in the Big Apple.  And, of course, outside of Christianity, New York City is host to innumerable conservative religious groups.  The old joke about the hayseed who comes to New York and is surprised by the number of “New York Amish” demonstrates that New York has its own profound tradition of deeply conservative culture and theology.

Even within the bounds of conservative Protestantism, large urban areas have always served as strongholds.  True, someone wanting a Protestant fundamentalist education could go to Bob Jones University in lovely Greenville, South Carolina.  Or she could go to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  But she could also head to Los Angeles to Biola University, or to Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute or Wheaton College.

The roots of this commonly held misperception, I think, come from the utter dominance of conservative evangelical Protestantism in some rural areas.  When folks from the big city drive around in fly-over country, they are shocked by the public dominance of this type of fundamentalism.  But such folks ought to look closer at their own cities.  Look for storefront Pentecostal churches.  Look for big cathedrals.  Look beyond the stereotypes of cities as home only to nightlife and paganism, and you’ll notice a deeply religious urban America.

There might be a few translation difficulties as Tebow  moves from the Bible Belt to the Big Apple, but there will not be any lack of fundamentalists ready to greet Tebow as he (if he?) makes his New York Jets debut.

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Culture Wars Update: The Tebow Test

As you’ve seen by now, it  looks like we have a new litmus-test question for America’s continuing culture wars.  This one packs a lot more punch than its cultural logic would seem to suggest.

Even if we aren’t really sports fans, we are now supposed to have some opinion about the hyper-public, hyper-Christian persona of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.  If you haven’t been following this story at all, there are a couple of wrinkles that make it interesting.  First of all, on just a sports level, there’s the question of whether or not Tebow can handle the pressure of pro football.  He had a great college career, but some sports nerds insist he does not have the goods (yet?) to make it in the NFL.  But a series of improbable last-minute wins seems to prove otherwise.  Check out some of the mainstream sports coverage here and here.

I like the NFL as much as the next guy, especially if the Packers are on and there’s food and beer involved.  But ILYBYGTH readers and everyone interested in culture-war issues have been more interested in Tebow’s loud and repeated public professions of his Christian faith.  This isn’t new.  He has been celebrated among conservative Protestants since his college days.  Tebow is certainly not the first big sports star to push evangelical Christianity into the public spotlight in ways other evangelists haven’t been able to.  But his combination of insistent public evangelism, combined with his meteoric rise as an unlikely NFL star, seems to have focused public attention in a new way.

So now we have a Tebow Test.  For some culture warriors, Tebow’s posturing has seemed nothing short of a prelude to a pogrom.  In a news post on The Jewish Week, pundit and blogger Joshua Hammerman attracted a lot of attention for his claims that Tebow’s in-your-face proselytizing could have some terrifying implications.

Hammerman wrote that if Tebow’s football success continued, it could encourage his Christian followers to do “insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.”  Hammerman also described his cultural opponents as the side of the “Moral Majority and ‘Hee Haw.'”  Hammerman’s intemperate language caused The Jewish Week to take down the article, and Hammerman apologized on his blog.

But it was not only Hammerman who got overheated about the Tebow Test.  Tebow’s supporters have been just as quick to defend and celebrate Tebow’s insistence on using his fifteen minutes to forcibly inject some Biblical Christianity into the public sphere.  Among some evangelical Christians, for instance, Tebow’s activism has been uniquely heroic.

Other conservative Christians have interpreted the Tebow Test as just another example of the ways conservative Christians represent an unfairly demonized cultural minority.  As Elizabeth Scalia argued recently on First Things,

Were Tim Tebow using his on-camera time to swagger and preen and lecture the nation on green energy, greedy millionaires, and gun control, his Christ-fixation would not only be permitted, it would be held up as a gaudy rebuke to uncool Christians everywhere, and his pronouncements—as long as he kept his mouth shut on abortion and gay marriage—would never be challenged.

So how do you fare on the Tebow Test?  Is his public religiosity a sign of the resurgence of Hee Haw Red State Pogromism?  Is it a sign of hope for a public culture that has gone too far to the dogs?  Is it more evidence that Biblical Christians can’t get a fair hearing in a public sphere dominated by secular materialism?  Or, perhaps, you hope that we can just get back to the food-and-beer part of NFL football.  Maybe you side more with the writers of the satirical Onion, who have concluded that Jesus doesn’t think Tebow has enough arm for the NFL.