Sports, religion and Tim Tebow

    So now we know which teams will face off in the 2012 Super Bowl. But when the New England Patriots and New York Giants take the field on Feb. 5, there’s a famously devout young quarterback who won’t be joining them.

    I speak, of course, of Tim Tebow. And so do you.


    In fact, we can’t stop talking about Tebow, whose signature touchdown celebration — praying on one knee — has already become a verb (“to Tebow”) in the blogosphere. Although his Denver Broncos were drubbed out of the playoffs by the Patriots, the controversy surrounding Tebow continues. Is he a humble servant of the Lord, or a sanctmonious grandstander? Should Christian athletes use their stature to spread their faith?

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    That’s a very old question, going back to the birth of American sports. But Tim Tebow isn’t simply proclaiming “Christianity,” as his defenders assume. Instead, he’s preaching a distinctly conservative brand of it.

    Consider the Young Men’s Christian Association, which was imported to Boston from England in 1851 and already boasted 205 city branches by 1860. Philadelphia’s branch hired the first paid YMCA director, John Wanamaker, who would go on to found America’s first department store.

    But the YMCAs also added a new emphasis on sports, which prior generations of Christians had regarded as a sinful diversion from spiritual concerns. By contrast, the YMCA insisted that athletic competition would assist in the struggle for souls. Bemoaning the allegedly “feminine” qualities of modern America, one minister predicted that sports would help bring “broad-shouldered men” to “eternal salvation.”

    But in the early 1900s, YMCA officials began to stress salvation in this world rather than the one to follow. Borrowing from the era’s “Social Gospel,” they invoked the New Testament on behalf of political reforms such as the eight-hour day, labor safety regulations, and the graduated income tax.

    And they also invoked sports, especially basketball. Developed in a Springfield, Massachusttets YMCA gymnasium by James Naismith, a Canadian-born minister, basketball would teach the “broad foundation for unselfishness” that that a truly Christian society required, as one YMCA official wrote.

    Eventually, religious sports leaders also became leaders in American social reform. One YMCA minister was appointed New York City’s first commssioner of parks; another became the first physical education director for the city’s public schools. “The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow,” one advocate declared. “If you want 20 years hence … justice and square dealing, work it out today with the boys and girls on the playground.”

    But such claims alienated more traditionally-minded Christian athletes like the former pro baseball player and barnstorming evangelist Billy Sunday, who worried that “liberals” were making “a religion out of social service with Christ left out.” All that mattered, Sunday added, was bringing the nation’s “spiritual batting average” to “God’s league standard.”

    After World War II, organizations such as the Fellowship for Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action took up Sunday’s call. Ditto for revivalists like Billy Graham, who eagerly enlisted track star Gil Dodds and other prominent athletes. “Running is only a hobby,” Dodds told one audience. “My mission is teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.” After Dodds ran a 4:13 mile in Philadelphia, fans noted the mystical parallel to Dodds’ own favorite passage of Scripture, Phil. 4:13.

    And that brings us back to Tim Tebow, who wore the same passage on his charcoaled underye strips when he played at the University of Florida. He also wore John 3:16, which was the top Google search after Tebow’s Broncos upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of this year’s playoffs. It turns out that Tebow passed for 316 yards that day, with an average of — you guessed it — 31.6 yards per completion.

    John 3:16 was also featured in a television advertisement on CBS during Tebow’s next and final game against the Patriots. Sponsored by Focus on the Family, which cast Tebow himself in a spot during last year’s Super Bowl, the ad showed children reciting the passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

    Critics slammed CBS for mixing religion and sports, while advocates praised the network for giving airtime to the “Christian” point of view. But they both missed the real point. Tim Tebow wants to use his football fame to bring souls into heaven, and he has every right to do so. But there are many other Christians — and members of other faiths, too — who think our first priority should be creating a more just and fair world here on Earth. Let’s hope they find a good quarterback, too.


    That’s History is a biweekly radio segment co-produced by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and WHYY featuring HSP historian Jonathan Zimmerman. That’s History will take an event, issue or person in the news, and look back into history for echoes, parallels, roots and lessons.

    This article previously appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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