Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is an evangelical Christian. He is devoted to his faith in a very public way, and that, as much as his perplexing play on the football field, has made him a cultural lightning rod. The wise heads of football insisted before this season that he is not actually much of a quarterback, that he had a weak, inaccurate arm and a devotion to a style of play that works in college (where he was a star for the University of Florida) but not in the NFL. But his base of fans, seemingly devoted to him primarily because of his religion and only secondarily because of his play on the field, were vocal in demanding he get his chance. And he did, leading the once woeful Broncos to the playoffs on the back of one improbable fourth-quarter comeback after another.
Then came the ultimate validation: Sunday's stunning overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in which Mr. Tebow passed for 316 yards with a playoffs record-setting 31.6 yards per completion. That's the very same sequence of numbers Mr. Tebow used to paint on his eye black while at Florida but which he was banned from doing under NFL rules about personal messages on players' uniforms. And the significance? John 3:16, the central summation of Christian faith: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."
Is somebody trying to send a message here, or what?
This statistical confluence is bound to set off another argument between the believers and skeptics about the emerging Tebow legend. Those who believe insist that there has been no luck in the Broncos' string of wins but that they are a clear case of divine intervention. Just before Christmas, The Washington Post's Sally Quinn wrote a fairly serious exploration of the notion that Mr. Tebow might be the second coming of Christ. On the other side of the ledger, the young quarterback has been lampooned on Saturday Night Live, and his constant genuflecting has been mockingly transformed into a verb.
(Even that has been a front in the Tebow culture wars; urbandictionary.com, which allows users to vote on proposed definitions for slang terms, shows 604 votes for "Tebow" as an adjective "used to describe a person who is honorable, respected, and/or amazing" but only 149 for "being awful at something for a majority of the time that you are doing it and then somehow pulling yourself together in the last moments to secure victory." A variety of less flattering and/or vulgar options rank lower.)
What is so odd about the Tebow phenomenon is the fact that it is a phenomenon at all. It's not like evangelical Christianity is new to the National Football League, or professional sports in general. Expressions of religion on the field and in post-game interviews are incredibly common. Mr. Tebow thanks God for his victories, but so do a slew of other professional athletes. The theme is so entrenched that one of the most famous stories from the satirical newspaper The Onion is about a player blaming God for losing a game. Moreover, it is not as if evangelical Christianity were some seldom-heard-from sect; the Republican presidential field just spent a few months in Iowa making that clear.
On the football field, Mr. Tebow has shown moments of brilliance but also maddening inconsistency, just as one would expect of a talented athlete making the difficult transition from college to the professional game. By all accounts he has been an inspirational presence in the locker room and appears to live an immaculate private life — a fact made all the more evident in contrast to the quarterback he defeated Sunday, Pittsburgh's enfant terrible, Ben Roethlisberger. But nothing Mr. Tebow has done or said warrants making him a central battleground in the culture wars. He is not a hypocrite, and he is not a political leader trying to legislate his private morality. Even the much-hyped Focus on the Family ad he appeared in during last year's Superbowl, which was argued about endlessly before the fact, proved entirely innocuous.
Both sides in the Tebow debate need to give it a rest. If he and the Broncos lose next week in New England, it won't be cosmic comeuppance for the sanctimonious but more proof that the Patriots and their quarterback, Tom Brady, are extremely tough to beat at home. But if they win, it's not proof that Mr. Tebow is the chosen one either. God works in mysterious ways, and for now, we need understand no more than this: The Steelers' postseason is over, and the Ravens' has just begun.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun