By Reid Cherner
(RNS) Along with politics, it is one of two things we don't talk about at parties: sports and religion.
Football has always been a religion to some. But now, thanks to Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, sports and religion have become the topic du jour.
Arguments over Tebow's path to the Hall of Fame can be waged, but he is surely the only proper noun (Tebow) that can become a verb (Tebowing) by dropping to one knee.
"Tim is who he is," said Brent High, the associate director of athletics for spiritual formation at Lipscomb University, who saw an event sell out when Tebow was a guest speaker there. "If you are a Christian, he is your absolute flag-bearer in the sports world. You cheer for him and you hurt for him when he takes the beating that he takes."
"If I am putting myself in the shoes of someone who is offended ... and Tebow is getting down on one knee with all cameras trained on him, that's in my face. ... So I can see why it's like the fingernails on the chalkboard to those people."
Tebow's actions aren't new; athletes have been thanking God longer than they have been thanking mom, and fans have pledged loyalty to a higher being in exchange for a touchdown, a first down or a fumble.
"We've had athletes being very vocal about their faith and using their status as athletes to promote their faith for a long time now," said Tom Krattenmaker, author of "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers."
"But Tebow seems to have taken it to an extra level of intensity."
So why is a quarterback who has started barely a dozen games in his professional career the dividing line in how we like our religion and sports?
"People have a sense that he is shoving religion down our throats," said Patton Dodd, managing editor at Patheos, a website that is dedicated to religion and spirituality, and author of "The Tebow Mystique."
Dodd, who believes "it is a little bit unfair" to criticize Tebow says "there developed a piety about his piety."
Not all religion and sports connections are controversial.
High used to work for the Nashville Sounds, a minor league baseball team, and was a co-creator of "Faith Nights" at minor league baseball parks where he said, for those not interested, the only thing "you might have seen was a memo on the video board in the fourth inning."
High added an important note: God sells. A Faith Day event, which often features a post-game Christian concert, could mean between $250,000 to $500,000 to the bottom line, he said.
"Christians are a huge demographic," High said. "Eighty-eight percent of people in America will identify themselves as some type of Christian. If you are sitting in an executive seat for the Colorado Rockies or St. Louis Rams or a hockey team, you would be foolish not to pay attention to that demographic the same way you pay attention to real estate agents, schools and scouts."
But it is not 88 percent of the Christians that former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was referring to when he said of Tebow that "when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I'll like him a little bit better."
Tebow, of course, had an answer for Plummer: "Is it good enough to only say to your wife I love her the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity?"
Steven Waite, a football fan from Brandon, Miss., and Stuart James, an Alabama fan from Virginia, aren't bothered by Tebow's open professions of faith.
"We are a nation founded upon religious freedom and expression," Waite said. "We're a melting pot. But instead of respecting and embracing our differences we're becoming more and more intolerant. To me, that's more egregious than anything Tim Tebow has done or will do. It's sad, really."
Added James: "If him taking a knee and thanking God after a win offends your sensibilities or upsets you, you don't have to watch."
There is no debate that Tebow, the son of evangelical missionaries, is passionate and true about his beliefs. Krattenmaker and Dodd point to the "John 3:16" eye black Tebow wore as the star quarterback at the University of Florida as the tipping point.
"Athletes had been wearing their faith on their sleeve, quote, unquote," Krattenmaker said, "but he's a guy who had it right on his face."
In the end perhaps it comes down less to whether Tebow is "the guy" and more to the fact that Tebow is "their guy."
"At times, if you are an evangelical Christian, it feels like the faith is being beat up on and marginalized," said Krattenmaker. "To see someone like Tebow to come along, that boosts them all and makes them feel kind of proud. He is a real champion for the faith and makes them want to defend him."
(Reid Cherner writes for USA Today.)
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