Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tim Tebow, Displaying Religion, and the Myth of Marginalized Christianity in the United States

by Andre E. Johnson
Editor: Rhetoric Race and Religion

I want to start by saying that I have no problem at all with Tim Tebow and I can understand some of the fascination with him. As he illustrates in the commercial, “They Said,” many have doubted Tebow and he currently uses those words as fuel to drive him to succeed. This story resonates with me because many have told me at different points throughout my life that I could not “do” and for a long time, I had a chip on my shoulder wanting to prove the naysayers wrong.

I also do not have a problem with Tebow "being" who he is. He is an Evangelical Christian and for him at least, that means displays his Christianity in public. Whether he is thanking his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” before every press conference, whether he decides to display scripture passages on his “eye black” during football games, or whether he does the now infamous “Tebowing” after every touchdown, I am sure that Tebow believes himself to be authentic and honest with his display. Matter of fact, for Tebow not to display his religion publicly, would be to denounce Jesus and incur the wrath of Luke 9:26, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels.”

What I do have a problem with is the backdrop in which Tebow feels the need to display his religious affiliation. For many, to claim publicly "Jesus is Lord and Savior" goes further than just a confession of faith. It also plays to the belief that Christianity is somehow under attack. Tebow and people of his mindset believe Christianity to be some marginalized religion in the United States and therefore, to proclaim publicly Jesus as Lord and Savior is really a radical thing to do. Fed a steady diet of "War on Christmas" and other media derived "Attacks on Religion," and my personal favorite, Obama's "War on Religion," many would argue that Tebow is acting prophetically by this proclamation. By praying on the field and wearing scripture references under his eyes, Tebow is resisting the establishment and following Jesus—even if it means offending people, losing friends, endorsements or losing something meaningful as a result. Many would proclaim that Tebow is facing the barrage of attacks—not because of his play, but because he is a Christian who would openly confess his Christianity. Moreover, by doing so, Tebow is a Christian hero—upheld by Jesus—to endure these attacks against his faith. Tebow and others like him become role models for Christians; especially young Christians navigating through life discerning their options and how they can be authentically Christian in a hostile Christian world.

However, the problem with the marginalized Christianity belief (in the United States anyway), is that it is a myth. Though the numbers are dropping, according to the Religious Identification Survey, though the number have decrease (and I have my own theories on that), we still make up 76% of people who claim any religious affiliation. Matter of fact, according to the same survey, people not affiliated with any religion; affectionately called the “Nones,” make up 15% which is more than people who are members of other religions (3.9%). Christians demand and get more air time in the media more than any other religious group. There are television and radio networks dedicated to Christians and Christianity. One would shutter to think if there was a Muslim religious channel as prominent as say TBN, the WORD, or GOD TV. There are churches are on every corner or every city and town in America. I wonder what would be the response to building a Mosque. I am sorry, we do not have to wonder—we already know the response. We Christians can form Christian family oriented groups (no matter how small) and almost be assured that we will get media coverage. We can threaten to burn Korans or even get a major corporation to pull advertising from a TV show because the leaders of the "powerful" Florida Family Association declared that the show was propaganda designed to depict Muslims as "ordinary folks" while excluding "many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish." 

Moreover, thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision, we good church folks can openly discriminate against employees by claiming that what the discriminated employee did was against our religious beliefs.I do not belief the justices had Hindus and Scientologists in mind when rendering this decision. And one cannot think of running for president unless she or he has a “personal relationship with Jesus” (Romney is about to find out if his personal relationship with Jesus is acceptable or not to religious conservatives). So to claim oneself a Christian in this Christian supported nation; to openly wear scripture references under one’s eyes or to pray openly on the football field or anywhere else is not being prophetic—its being safe and assured that you have millions of people who will come out and support you in all that you do.

No, we are no longer that little underground movement that continued after Jesus’ execution, that offered a new way to live, by loving all and standing up to the Empire when proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior (and not Caesar) really could have meant losing something; even one’s life. We are now part of the Empire and to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior will not get you in any trouble at all—matter of fact, as Tebow and others soon find out, others may reward you nicely for saying it. Just displaying religion it turns out is good enough.

Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee. He is also the editor of the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog

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