Tim Tebow and Christophobia

Two weeks into the NFL season, ESPN ran a Sunday morning special exploring why the third-string quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow, had become the most polarizing figure in American sports — more polarizing than trash-talking NBA behemoths; more polarizing than foul-mouthed Serena Williams; more polarizing than NFL all-stars who father numerous children by numerous women, all out of wedlock. Why does Tebow, and Tebow alone, arouse such passions? Why is Tebow the one whom “comedians” say they would like to shoot?

A hint: it has nothing to do with Tim Tebow’s prospects as a pro quarterback.

For readers who don’t follow the NFL, let me explain that Tim Tebow is a Heisman trophy winner who led the University of Florida to two mythical national collegiate championships. Many consider Tebow the greatest college football player ever, although there is a lot of skepticism about whether his skills will translate to the pro game. He is, by all accounts, a terrific teammate and a hard worker. Beyond these bare facts of his sporting life, however, lie the beginnings of an answer to the question of why so many people hate Tim Tebow with an irrational hatred.

Tebow is the son of an evangelical pastor and spends some of his vacation time working with his father’s mission in the Philippines. He famously wore eye-black with Bible verses inked on it in white during his Florida career, and he is not reluctant to share his Christian faith in other public ways. He visits sick kids in hospitals; he has said that he is a virgin who believes in saving himself for marriage; he and his mother taped a pro-life commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. There is not the slightest evidence that Tebow has ever forced himself and his convictions on his teammates or on an unsuspecting public.

And if Catholics would find his theology a little questionable at points, there is nothing of which I’m aware that would suggest that Tim Tebow wouldn’t be interested in sitting down and having a serious conversation with knowledgeable Catholics about how God saves those who will be saved. A guy who can command respect in the moral and cultural free-fire zone of an NFL locker room (not to mention the Southeastern Conference, which hardly resembles a network of Carthusian monasteries) is not likely to be shaken by a serious conversation about his understanding of how the Lord Jesus and his Father might effect the salvation of those who do not explicitly avow faith in the Lord Jesus and his Father.

No, Tim Tebow is a target of irrational hatred, not because he’s an iffy quarterback at the NFL level, or a creep personally, or an obnoxious, in-your-face, self-righteous proselytizer. He draws hatred because he is an unabashed Christian, whose calmness and decency in the face of his Christophobic detractors drives them crazy. Tim Tebow, in other words, is a prime example of why Christophobia — a neologism first coined by a world-class comparative constitutional law scholar, J.H.H. Weiler, himself an Orthodox Jew — is a serious cultural problem in these United States.

It is simply unimaginable that any prominent Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh quarterback, should such a fantasy of anthropology exist, would be subjected to the vileness that is publicly dumped on Tim Tebow. Tolerance, that supreme virtue of the culture of radical relativism, does not extend to evangelical Christians, it seems. And if it does not extend to evangelicals who unapologetically proclaim their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and who live their commitment to the dignity of human life from conception and natural death, it will not extend to Catholics who make that same profession of faith and that same moral commitment. Whatever we think of Tim Tebow’s theology of salvation, Tim Tebow and serious Catholics are both fated to be targets of the Christophobes.

Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed with fervor, it draws opposition. The ultimate source of that opposition is the Evil One, but we know what his fate will be. What we don’t know is how democracy can survive widespread, radical Christophobia.


George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Briana

    I’m not so sure if I agree. There are and have recently been plenty of professional athletes in all sports who are devoted Christians and have received far less negative attention than Tebow has. To name a few: Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner (who retired a few years ago), Mariano Rivera, Eddie George (who played for the Titans and Cowboys), Andy Pettite, David Robinson, Albert Pujols, and probably some others I can’t think of right now. I don’t know anything about Tebow to have an idea of what it might be, but if there are so many who share his beliefs, it doesn’t make sense to single him out.

  • Tony Esolen

    On the contrary, Briana – I believe Mr. Weigel is exactly right in Tim Tebow’s case. Consider that he commits the effrontery not only of being a Christian, but of being a young, strapping, good-looking, unmarried, and chaste Christian. That threat is too dire for them to ignore.

    In general, a professedly Christian athlete receives far better treatment from the fans and from the hometown sportscasters than from the professional writers and the big network honchos. If you listen to the Saint Louis Cardinals’ baseball games, as I do, it becomes clear that the men in the booth are fond of Albert Pujols not only because he is a great player, but because he is a good and decent Christian man (Ricky Horton, the TV play-by-play man, is the local head of a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes). But the big network sorts will ignore this dimension of the man’s life. They do this so well, that most people have no idea that Albert is a devout Christian, or that he has established a foundation in Saint Louis for the benefit of children with Down Syndrome (a few of whom he and his wife have adopted). They try to bury these things. The golfer Betsy King long ago complained that sportscasters would edit out any mention that athletes made of their faith. And then, sometimes, they treat the athlete with a measure of condescension and disdain, as they did with Kurt Warner.

    The NFL is a fascinating melange of every sort of man, from thug to aspiring saint – but that whole dimension of the lives of the men who play football is ignored. Except that Steve Sabol – himself a Christian, I believe – made a great film on just that subject ten or fifteen years ago.

  • Charles Lee

    I’m a Denver resident and casual follower of the Broncos, in which organization Mr. Tebow is employed. I’ve scanned through hundreds of responses to scores of Tebow articles, in the sporting press, popular news, and more off-mainstream articles such as this. No doubt, Mr. Tebow is a nice young man as you suggest, whose name also happens to sell a lot of t-shirts bearing his name.

    As I have noticed on other occasions, Mr. Weigel, you choose to see only one pole of the magnet. If you actually read a sizable sampling of responses, you will see the responses of your “Christophobic detractors” seem to be split about fifty-fifty with vicious rantings from the pro-Tebow crowd.

    At one pole, yes, are people who imprecate the intrusion of evangelical Christianity into the realm of pro sports. However, don’t be blind to the nauseating spectacle at the other pole, represented by self-identified Christians, so filled with hatred, so completely off-message from any ideal that Christ would actually recognize, that they become nothing more than a grotesque parody mewling from behind a shield with a cross on it.

    If democracy is threatened, as you claim, by “Christophobic detractors”, I think it is equally fair to wonder to what extent civilization is threatened by those who claim Christ’s name and then confuse love with hatred.

  • Tony Esolen

    “So filled with hatred,” Mr. Lee – where? Consider your own article here. What on earth can you possibly mean by that word “intrusion”? Do you mean to suggest that the faith has no place at all in a man’s life as an athlete? A separation of church and field? Since when have Americans believed such a thing? If secular reporters and commentators are uncomfortable with an athlete’s profession of faith, that’s their trouble and not the athlete’s, because faith, in itself, is a transcendent good – indeed, it is the affirmation of the existence of a transcendent good. If I’m childless by choice, and I’m around an athlete exuberantly celebrating the birth of his first child and praising God for it, then if I roll my eyes or smirk or shake my head with disdain, that’s my problem, not the athlete’s. I’m the one with the cramped soul and the narrow mind.

    Step back from the Tebow “controversy” for a moment – a controversy that exists almost wholly in the minds of secular reporters. Imagine a young man who, though he is popular and handsome and in peak physical condition, not only refrains from sleeping around, he says frankly that he will not have sexual congress with a woman before marriage. He doesn’t boast about it, but merely states the decision as a matter of fact, in response to questions. He regularly flies to a foreign country to assist his father and his family in missionary work among the poor. He is well-liked by his teammates. He is not a selfish player. His talent is not exceptional, but his industriousness and his heart are. He is Pete Rose, if Pete were a devout man and upstanding citizen. He is Pier Giorgio Frassati with a football.

    Now then: what the heck could be controversial about such a young man? Or rather, what’s wrong with us, that our reporters look askance at Tim Tebow? It says nothing about Tim, but a lot about us.

    Last: I often see Christians accused of “hatred” on the basis of their opposition to this or that form of social degeneration. Nobody accuses Episcopalians of hatred, because Episcopalians have capitulated entirely to the sexual revolution. In cases where one party accuses the other, not of having made an error, or of missing some truth, or of yielding to an unfortunate passion (as all human beings are prone to do), but of deep malice, then I’ve got to see some pretty hard evidence of that malice. Otherwise my judgment goes against the accuser.

  • Charles Lee

    Mr. Esolen–
    Have you actually read comment threads for Tebow articles on sites like ESPN, denverpost.com, Sports Illustrated, CNN, or Yahoo? Actually paged through hundreds of reader replies across the blogosphere? My point is that Tebow supporters on these threads are frequently as vile and contemptible as any Tebow detractors that George Weigel can name. More vile, in some respects, in that many invoke the name of Christ in the same breath that they call for the crucifixion of John Fox (Tebow’s coach) or Kyle Orton (Tebow’s teammate). How Christlike!

    Essentially, Mr. Weigel observes correctly that Tim Tebow has become a polarizing figure, but then sees only “Christophobia” as the cause, without seeing what is so plain to so many others–that many among the evangelical Christian Right stoke the controversy with shameful hypocrisy not worthy of Christ.

  • Tony Wawrzynski

    Tebow’s unpardonable offense is that he has publicly expressed gratitude that his parents didn’t abort him when they were being strongly pressured to do so. The poor guy is just happy to be alive and wishes the same for other unborn children who are danger of being killed. And this is why his leftist, pro-abortion antagonists hate him so intensely! Anyone who is genuinely still on the fence in regard to the abortion question should only need to consider the attitude of these people to make up his mind. They don’t care a whit about “choice“, they are simply murderous, if not in deed, then in intent.

  • Matthew

    I’m not aware of criticism of Tebow that stems from his Christianity. It might be out there — I just haven’t seen it. Mostly he seems to attract hostility because of schadenfreude regarding his disappointing transition from top college player to unexceptional NFL pro. He was hyped as the best college player ever; his game doesn’t translate well to the NFL because he can’t hit the side of a barn with the ball. The much-reviled Josh McDaniels hired him. There’s controversy about Tebow vs. Orton. Most commentary about football players is, as Charles Lee pointed out, “vile.” Football fans are a crude, aggressive, and foul-mouthed bunch on the whole. There are many reasons other than his Christianity that make Tebow a target.

  • Tony Esolen

    OK, Mr. Lee, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve read about two hundred recent posts on Tim Tebow. The article I found most interesting – or rather the comments, since the article was plain dumb – was on the tonsure that the Bronco players gave him as part of a funny hazing ritual. In all the comments I read, I found not a single Christian calling anybody any names, and in fact not a single Christian really complaining – other than Randy Cross, a sportscaster for CBS – that Tebow is being singled out by the Denver management or by the sportswriters for being Christian. I’ve broken bread with hundreds of evangelical Christians in my now eighteen years as a homeschooling father – seven of them spent as head of our state homeschooling organization – and I’ve come to “speak” evangelical. Are they perfect Christians? Heck no; nor am I, nor was Saint Peter. Do they speak about hating people? Nope. They’re actually, as a group, too darned aware of sin, and too happy to claim the grace of Christ, to be looking at others as objects of hatred. No doubt people can find exceptions. I’m speaking generally from what I’ve seen.

    By contrast, in those comments I did read quite a few miserable statements by secularists, such as that Tebow is a complete phony, that he’ll be revealed to have fathered illegitimate children, that he’s a punk, that he and Kurt Warner ought to die in a plane crash, that Christians ought to be happy he’s suffering since suffering is the only avenue to grace, that he’s a dope and a hypocrite, and so forth. I find this very strange, but not surprising. I will say that the biggest controversy surrounding him is whether he has the skills to be an NFL quarterback. On that score I have no opinion, since I’ve never seen him play in the NFL, and since what he did in college, he did in a much different sort of game.

  • Matthew

    Football fans are like that. Football is a violent, aggressive, conflict-oriented game that appeals to adolescent males (of all ages) who want to appear macho. Look at the ads being shown at football games. The advertisers have their target audience figured out. I don’t think the fans necessarily pick on or support Tebow because of his religion — they fight with whatever is at their disposal.

  • Joe Mies

    Much of the premise of the article is incorrect. The usual suspects definitely have an irrational hatred of Tebow. But he is, by and large, one of the most popular and loved players in the league. Last I checked, this backup quarterback had one of the hottest selling Jerseys in the NFL. I think the hatred by the useful idiots is to be expected but the admiration indicates a longing for men of his character.

  • brad

    This article is irresponsible. The author did very little research, or at least stopped when he found what he wanted to find. If the goal is to smooth tensions between people of different beliefs, I would not suggest playing the paranoid victim card in this case and instead focus on real problems.

    Tim Tebow is being given a chance to play BECAUSE he is Christian. There are thousands of his fans that know nothing about football and only follow him because of his religion. When he doesn’t play, they chant his name in the stands, demanding he be inserted. And if the coach dare not listen, they cry and scream about injustice and “Christophobia”. (By the way, an NFL coach is supposed to make these decisions, not the fans. I’m pretty sure any successful coach will agree). No, being a great college quarterback does not automatically qualify you to start. Sometimes yes, sometimes not. It all depends. It’s up to the coaches to decide, not a group of rabid fans who buy billboards. That’s just life in the NFL. Almost all knowledgeable people around the NFL cite his inaccuracy as his downfall. Everyone acknowledges he can run, which is great in college, but does not translate well to the NFL, and therefore not worthy in and of itself of a starting quarterback. Even the best running QB in NFL history (Mike Vick) really only had limited success. By all accounts, he was the 3rd or 4th best QB on the team, sometimes throwing incompletions in PRACTICE “against air” (which means uncovered receivers). John Clayton of ESPN even mentioned several times in the preseason that even the rest of Tebow’s team didn’t want him to play. As for his character and his part as a role model, there are plenty of good quality players in the NFL who don’t get a chance to play, not because of their religion, but because they are simply not good enough. I’d be fine, as would most fans, with him playing if he had earned it.

    When writing an article about anti religious fervor you may want to watch your wording with lines such as the “…fantasy of anthropology…” part. Just a thought. “Do unto others…”

    So I’m not so much anti Christian or anti-Tebow. I just don’t want a sport I love to be taken over by religious zealotry. And yes, that is the case if the lobbying for an unqualified player by uninformed outsiders actually effects the game.

    I guess from your comments above that you’ll dismiss me as “secularist”. I hope I’m wrong, but if you do, I don’t know what I can do for you. I’m just giving you the other side of the story. And if you are allowed to, go and read some Tebow supporter comments on ESPN’s site and I guarantee that you will find a healthy sample of hate and negativity.

  • Tony Esolen

    There is no danger that football will be taken over by “religious zealotry,” if for nothing else than that it is a highly competitive sport with great prestige and a lot of money at stake. We’ll now see what the young man can do, or not do. There have been plenty of quarterbacks whose raw numbers do not capture their actual value to their teams (Bradshaw, Namath). We’ll see. NFL fans know that there’s no clear correlation between success in the NCAA and success in the NFL (as witness flameouts like Akili Smith and Ryan Leaf).

    Again I’ve gone trawling through the ESPN website, and cannot find a single nasty comment made by a Christian. I do find plenty of nasty comments on the other side — snide, blasphemous, contemptuous. I’ve seen about 40 of those. If the comments have indeed been evenly divided between nasty Christians and nasty secularists, the odds that I’d find 40 of one and none of the other are infinitesimally low — 1 divided by 2, raised to the 40th power. That’s less than 1 in one trillion.

  • Tony Esolen

    I know this comes late, but I hope someone will see it. Tim Tebow has just been named the starter for the Broncos. So, then, I’ve been trawling through hundreds of comments on the ESPN site. I have had to wade through ridicule, blasphemy, and bigotry that nobody would have imagined possible a few decades ago. The sheer ignorance and nastiness and pettiness of the comments takes my breath away — the comments of people who never once have had to confront the degeneracy of our times by looking in the mirror, as Christians are commanded to do (and, yes, most of them do at least sometimes obey that command). Still I have not seen a single nasty comment made by a Christian. Well, perhaps one: in reply to this comment, “News just in, this is the 21st century, religion is a fairy tale,” someone wrote, “News just in, hell is still hot.”

    So now I’m up to about 100 vile and petty comments by the secularists, and at most 1 by a Christian. If indeed such comments split 50-50 between the two groups, that means that I’ve hit upon something whose odds would be 101 divided by 2 raised to the 100th power. That denominator, I believe, IS GREATER THAN THE NUMBER OF ALL THE PARTICLES IN THE UNIVERSE.

    Somebody above ain’t telling the truth.

  • brad

    tony- If you’re not seeing nasty remarks to those not 100% in favor of Tebow, you’re not reading. Seriously, I question your ability to see it. I think it’s you’re definition of nasty that’s the issue. If someone labels another a sinner over their opinion of a football player …but doesn’t use a dirty word, it might still a little nasty, unnecessary and unintelligent. And you may want to visit other internet discussion groups to get a taste of internet discussion. It can be pretty raunchy. But really, most of the time, it’s just irrelevant humor. Remember, not everyone has to see things the same way you do.

    how do you know what religion people are just by reading their comments? And really, don’t call you and your fellow Christians better people just because you follow a book that YOU think is right. Christians are just as flawed as non-Christians. Just let everyone go and live their lives, leave people alone and don’t judge everyone. Don’t shove it down everyone’s throats.

    Tebow’s chance to start is the result of millions of people who love Tim for no other reason than he is a Christian complaining so much that coaches put him in to deal with this public relations nightmare. That is an example of religious zealotry taking over. I really don’t the U.S. to be “Taliban West”.

    Christophobia isn’t the explanation for everything, sometimes football players just aren’t very good.

    If someone doesn’t like Cam Newton, I guess the only explanation is that Cam Newton is black, right?

  • brad

    when asked straight forward do Christians leave “snide blasphemous contemptuous” remarks, gogators1713 said
    “Absolutely. I hate the Raiders, Red Sox, and fsu. They all suck. I was saved in ’93.”

  • brad

    this comments section has some interesting comments….