Tim Tebow: Culture Warrior

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY, February 1, 2010

Over the course of 30 seconds during Sunday’s Super Bowl, Tim Tebow will complete his evolution from college football superhero to culture-wars flash point.

The irrepressible University of Florida quarterback — famous for his two national championships, his Heisman Trophy, and his penchant for wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve and on his game-day eye black — will make his first Super Bowl appearance. It will not be on the field, but in a commercial airing on the CBS telecast that will be utterly different from what we’re accustomed to seeing in the big game’s advertising reel.

Tebow and his mother, Pam, star in an ad produced by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. According to the Colorado-based organization, the spot will emphasize the theme “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life.” Details have not been released — and neither the news media nor the public have been given sneak previews — but the ad is expected to retell the story of the extremely difficult pregnancy Pam Tebow experienced with Tim and her faith-based refusal to follow doctors’ recommendations to abort.

At a surface level, the Tebow ad likely will stand out as a wholesome, inspirational contrast to the beer-guzzling, sex-selling excess that characterizes Super Bowl commercials. But just beneath the shine of the “Go Families!” pitch is a veritable bomb of combustible politics.

If you want to set a progressive’s teeth on edge, just mention Focus on the Family, founded by the recently retired James Dobson, one of the country’s most outspoken and controversial culture warriors. Dobson, and by extension Focus on the Family itself, is the embodiment of the staunch anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality politics that characterize the Christian right.

Tebow backlash?

Even before its airing, this commercial has accelerated a Tim Tebow backlash that was already growing over the course of Tebow’s senior year at Florida. Heretofore, much of the criticism has been provoked not so much by Tebow himself, but by the over-the-top fawning of some fans, broadcasters and writers who have told and retold the Tebow story past the point of hagiography: His home-schooled childhood under the wing of his deeply Christian parents. His missionary trips to the Philippines. His passionate, championship-winning play. His fiery motivational talk after a dubious Gators’ loss, now enshrined like Scripture on the entrance to the university’s football facility. His virginity.

With this ad, Tebow becomes a direct participant in the political uses of his person and his story. Call him naive or call him courageous and principled — probably more the latter — but few will be calling him non-controversial after this.

“Tebow will come crashing into football’s Holy Night with a partisan pronouncement on one of the most controversial issues in American life,” pundit Ed Kilgore aptly observes on The Democratic Strategist blog. “I somehow doubt it will persuade too many watchers to change their views on abortion, but it may change some views about Tim Tebow.”

In one sense, Tebow’s athletic, religious — and now political — visage is nothing new. For decades, evangelical athletic stars have been using their visibility to help promote a Christian message. In the many instances when they’ve segued into the political sphere, they’ve generally marched in tight alignment with conservative causes. (Think former Boston Red Sox star Curt Schilling and his high-profile campaigning for George W. Bush after his 2004 World Series heroics.)

But rarely if ever has a young sports star combined these elements in such dramatic fashion as Tebow, and in a manner that has excited such passions. Gator teammate Brandon Spikes has likened him to “God.” A contributor to the Dear Tim Tebow website glories that “God sent a son to the Florida Gators to do a job and … we are so proud and honored.” Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke has written, “It’s almost as if Tebow is a dream come true.”

Tebow’s accomplishments and character are beyond question. But some have called his wild popularity a form of idolatry — the worship of Tim Tebow. The new emphasis on the circumstances of his birth appears to take this glorification to new heights. Whether and how the Super Bowl ad will frame the story remains to be seen, but the pre-game hype alone has brought new attention to it.

For a prime example of how it’s perceived in evangelical circles, take this passage from a January article on the conservative Christian website Crosswalk.com: “In 1985 Pam Tebow and her husband were Christian missionaries in the Philippines. Wanting to expand their family, they prayed for ‘Timmy’ by name before she became pregnant. Pam fell into a coma just prior to the pregnancy after contracting amoebic dysentery, a bacteria transmitted through contaminated drinking water, and took a series of strong medications to treat her illness. Doctors later found those medications caused the fetus to be ‘irreversibly’ damaged. They strongly urged Pam to abort her fifth child. Declining the advice of her doctors, Pam gave birth Aug. 14, 1987, to a healthy son without the devastating disabilities her physicians predicted. Pam cites her Christian faith as the reason for going through her pregnancy.”

Difficult questions arise

So now, apparently, we have a miraculous birth narrative to complete the deification of Tim Tebow.

Millions of viewers understandably appreciate the Tebow family for standing on faith when faced with a difficult decision, and we can all celebrate the brilliant outcome. But use of the Tebow story in this context raises difficult questions as well: Does it mean that women should always ignore medical advice pointing to the necessity of an abortion? Even if the woman’s life is at stake? How is this message to be received by the many decent women who agonized and made the other choice?

Regarding CBS, is money alone the reason for its accepting an advocacy ad after years and years of refusing such content for Super Bowl telecasts, or is deeper political intrigue in play? What does this Sunday’s pro-life ad portend for future Super Bowls?

As for Tebow, the Super Bowl controversy is playing out at exactly the same time as the mounting criticism of his passing skills and his suitability for the pro game. Given the NFL’s well-known aversion to controversy, is he putting his draft prospects in even greater jeopardy by aligning with Focus on the Family and its anti-abortion stance?

One thing we do know: Tebow has proved like few others the ability to withstand the heat and stay in the kitchen. That ability is being tested like never before. With this pro-life Super Bowl ad, he’s sizzling in the frying pan of sports-celebrity scrutiny and the white-hot fire of culture-war politics.

Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland, Ore.-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes on religion in sports was published in October.