In my first full year as a recovering politician, I've capitalized on my newfound freedom to speak on the issues of the day without the restrictions of the typical partisan and special-interest handcuffs. Best of all, I've finally been liberated to address -- with detail, nuance, and unadulterated candor -- some of the nation's most controversial subjects: from gay marriage, to Middle East peace, to legalizing marijuana.
So today, I'm prepared to tackle the most polarizing subject of our modern era... Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
And I venture to do the unthinkable: try to convince liberals and progressives like myself to learn to love the latter-day poster boy of conservative Christian America.
Like much of the spiral-pass-challenged intelligentsia, I've held a high-school-rooted grudge against many of America's handsomest sports heroes; they too often remind me of the spoiled jocks who applied wedgies, received special treatment in the classroom and always got the girl. Fortunately, Tom Brady (the supermodel-marrying quarterback of my beloved New England Patriots) helped relieve me of this affliction. (Click here to read my ode to pretty boys I begrudgingly admire.)
Tim Tebow, of course, presents a different and, indeed, unique case. (The 24-year-old virgin isn't exactly stealing and breaking the hearts of other guys' girls.) Tebow instead plays to a different one of my childhood insecurities -- that of being one of the few Jewish kids in my Bible Belt home of Lexington, Kentucky.
Certainly, there's no athlete in recent memory who's worn his Christian faith more on his sleeve -- and sometimes even his eyeblack -- than Tim Tebow. Tebow's constant public declarations of devotion to Jesus Christ remind many of us non-Christians and Christian liberals of the small -- but much-over-publicized -- collection of angry tele-evangelists and hypocritical politicians who manipulate religion to multiply support by fostering division.
Tebow's warm embrace by organizations that oppose women's choice and gay rights gives many of us additional pause. It's no wonder that a recent poll showed that Tebow was viewed favorably by 68% of Republicans but only 39% of Democrats.
Ultimately, though, it's the four little letters and three numbers most associated with Tebow that give many of us the most discomfort: John 3:16. As you probably know by now, it's a verse from the New Testament that Tebow famously sketched into his eye black during the 2009 BCS Championship game, and that became the subject of an international Miracle of Lourdes-like exegesis after Tebow passed for 316 yards during a miraculous finish to a recent playoff game.
John 3:16, one of the most theologically significant scriptural texts for Christians, reads as follows:
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.
It's a beautiful notion: John shares with Christians (and potential converts) the good news (gospel) that God holds immeasurable love for them, and assures them that if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they will enjoy the eternal fruits of life in Heaven after their corporal death.
Unfortunately, many have also drawn the logically-obverse lesson from John 3:16: If you don't accept Jesus into your heart, you're going to Hell.
(Now, like most Jews, some day I'd love to retire into warmer climes. But this is going just a bit too far south...)
Is this Tebow's interpretation? Perhaps.
But if it is, it's not one that he's shared publicly.
Tebow's public testimony indeed is universally positive. His first words in every post-game interview invariably are: "I would like to thank my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ." After a touchdown, or during critical moments of a game, he kneels in prayer, head resting on hand, spawning an entire YouTube industry of copycat "Tebowing."
But Tebow's message is not derogatory towards other religions, his sermons aren't brimstone and hellfire, and he has never aggressively tried to force his views on others.
This is a critical distinction. For those of us non-Christians who came of age during the ascent of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, overt displays of evangelical Christianity can often trigger memories of being told that our faith was invalid, our belief system corrupt. For years, the most visible and vocal "Christians" thrust into the media's glare reinforced those instincts, gaving many of us the impression that evangelical Christianity was an angry, divisive religion.
But that's an unfair depiction of the belief system of most evangelicals in America today.
And it's the subject of a decades-long discussion I've been having with my best friend, David, a very sincere and devout evangelical Christian.
The term "evangelical," David has taught me, comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning "the good news" or the "gospel"; and Christians who adhere to the interpretation are instructed to "evangelize," or share the gospel with the world. This commandment comes directly from Jesus who instructed in Matthew 28:19 to "go and make disciples of all nations" and in Mark 16:15 to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation."
Since David loves me like a brother, he feels a special duty and desire to see that I have eternal salvation. (For more on my relationship with my Christian friend -- and parallels to the Biblical David and Jonathan, see my book on faith and public policy, The Compassionate Community.)
But despite the high stakes at play under his strong belief system, David has never pushed, cajoled, threatened or tried to scare me. He shares with me his faith, makes sure I have all the facts before me, and gives me the freedom to decide myself.
(Postscript: I've still chosen Judaism. But I've assured David that if the Book of Revelation is correct, all good Christians are Raptured into Heaven, and the Jews on Earth are given a Second Chance to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior,
damned straight darned-tootin' I will follow.)
By all accounts of his Denver Broncos teammates, this appears to be Tebow's m.o. as well. Safety Brian Dawkins reports, "He doesn't pull up a pulpit in the middle of the locker room and say, 'Hey, everybody, gather 'round, let me tell you something.' That's not how this thing works. It's individual. If someone asks a question, we'll share our faith and our testimony."
Linebacker Wesley Woodard also contends that Tebow never proselytizes: "The thing about Tim, I respect him, because he's never pushed his religion off on anybody. He just goes out there and believes in God himself and shows it every day."
Perhaps even more important than his message are Tebow's actions. Too often, the most publicized displays of conservative Christianity focus exclusively on salvation and the sins of others, neglecting the extraordinary ministry of Jesus toward "the least of us": the poor, the sick, the disabled.
By stark contrast, Tim Tebow walks... er... runs the run. In his recent, much-discussed column, "I Believe in Tim Tebow," ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly shares in great detail the truly selfless and meaningful work the quarterback has done all of his life on behalf of the needy:
Every week, Tebow picks out someone who is suffering, or who is dying, or who is injured. He flies these people and their families to the Broncos game, rents them a car, puts them up in a nice hotel, buys them dinner (usually at a Dave & Buster's), gets them and their families pregame passes, visits with them just before kickoff (!), gets them 30-yard-line tickets down low, visits with them after the game (sometimes for an hour), has them walk him to his car, and sends them off with a basket of gifts.
This is the behavior of a true, sincere, consistent and devout evangelical Christian. And Tebow is the kind of hero that we can only hope young Christian boys and girls will emulate.
Many progressives and non-evangelical Christians might find that they don't share Tim Tebow's belief system and might strongly disagree with his positions on hot-button social issues.
But what Tebow's example demonstrates is that there is a significant segment of evangelical Christians who sincerely follow God's instruction to love all of our neighbors -- particularly the most needy -- as ourselves.
Accordingly, Tebow not only is inspiring young Christians to follow Jesus' true example, but he's also providing the rest of us with a more loving -- and frankly, more accurate -- face of evangelical Christianity.
This way, Tim Tebow can help our country heal and lay the groundwork for a less polarized, more compassionate, community-focused America.
And that's something that liberals should celebrate.