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Faith and football
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Faith and football

The ostentatious Christian piety of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow brings to mind an old joke that could only have been written by a Jew.

In my favorite version, Jesus and Moses are playing golf. Moses tees off on the first hole and hits a beautiful push fade that ends up in the middle of the fairway.

Jesus steps up and shanks his shot into the rough. Moses starts to laugh, but then a mouse picks up the ball and carries it down the fairway. A hawk swoops down from the sky, picks up the mouse, and drops it on the green. The mouse drops the ball, and the ball rolls right into the cup.

Moses turns to Jesus and says, “Are you gonna play golf or just screw around?”

Tebow’s improbable march from mediocrity to next Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff against the New England Patriots has sparked as many theological arguments as barroom bets. A star at the University of Florida, Tebow had trouble adjusting to the pro game, especially the pass. And yet before being stopped by the Patriots last month, he had managed to put together a six-game winning streak, replete with unlikely comebacks many called, yes, “miraculous.” If Jesus gave up golf to play football, it might have looked like last Sunday’s playoff victory over a hobbled Pittsburgh.

Tebow not only wears his religion on his sleeve, but on eye black inscribed “John 3:16,” a verse from the Gospels. He regularly kneels in prayer during games, in a stance — right knee down, right fist to forehead — that is both widely admired and mocked across the Internet.

Like Rick Santorum in Iowa, Tebow’s religiosity and surprising success have proved polarizing. Devout Christians see in Tebow not only a role model but a hint that God is working miracles through a helmeted messenger. In that sense, his erratic passing only enhances his aura (it would hardly be seen as a miracle, after all, had Tom Brady thrown for 316 yards against the Steelers’ stingy defense). At the very least, they are thrilled that his brand of evangelical Christianity is being given so large a stage, week after week.

Tebow’s detractors tend to fall into two camps: sports skeptics and religious skeptics. The sports skeptics point out that the Broncos’ famous streak included games against mediocre opponents, and that a strong Denver defense counterbalances their weak passing attack. The speedy, muscled Tebow is not without his worldly gifts, they say. Denver coach John Fox has built an offense around Tebow’s ability to scramble and unsettle defenders.

The religious skeptics ridicule believers for insisting that God smites defensive backs but ignores famines and genocide. Besides, Tebow is hardly the only NFL player to invoke God before, during, and after games. If God favors Tebow, what does that say about the believers on the other side of the field?

Some of the Tebow-bashing strikes me as anti-Christian bigotry, although for the most part it reveals a split among Americans when it comes to public shows of devotion. Blue America tends to tolerate religion, but bristles at sanctimony. Red Americans believe in “witnessing” their faith. You see these worldviews clashing over the Republican primary battles. Santorum and Rick Perry have been essentially Tebowing throughout their campaigns, invoking Jesus and their Christianity at almost every stop. It got so that the Anti-Defamation League had to throw a flag this week, calling on Santorum to cool the Jesus talk. “Senator Santorum’s remark comparing himself to a ‘Jesus candidate’ was inappropriate and exclusionary,” fumed the ADL’s Abraham Foxman. “Religious appeals to voters are simply unacceptable and un-American.”

I’m with Foxman when it comes to religion and politics. Even a reliable Jewish conservative like Michael Medved objected to the rhetoric at Rick Perry’s “Values Voter Summit.” Wrote Medved: “Such incidents leave many Jews poised to vote on fears of Christian intolerance rather than hopes of Christian love for Israel.”

As for religion and sports, I can live with it. I’ll take a Bible-thumping Tim Tebow over a pistol-packing Plaxico Burress (especially now that Burress doesn’t play for my Giants).

But I wouldn’t want to live in a world where God plays favorites on Sunday afternoons. It goes back to the golf joke. Sure, an omnipotent God can step in and mess with the natural world and its rules. Miracles happen, and in Jewish tradition the possibility of hashgacha pratis (divine intervention) is a central tenet.

But there is also a suspicion that miracles can ruin the game. The Talmud teaches that a person shouldn’t pray for something whose outcome has ostensibly been determined (the gender of a baby already in utero, an increase in a harvest that has already been measured). One is urged to pray for things to happen in a natural way, precisely because it makes humankind responsible for its actions. “Functioning within the world of nature places the focus on human effort,” writes Rabbi Yitzchak Blau. “On the other hand, depending on the miraculous converts humans from active to passive and from subject to object.”

That’s why I’ll never accept that God is a Denver Broncos fan. I do suspect, however, that He has a real beef with the Mets.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the verse written on Tim Tebow's eye black. The article has been corrected.

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