How Much Is Too Much Religion In Sports? Quarterback Tim Tebow's ritual of pointing to the sky and taking to knee in prayer has gone viral. Fans call the Denver Broncos' player 'God's Quarterback,' but detractors say Jesus doesn't belong on the field. Host Michel Martin speaks with writer Tom Krattenmaker about the ongoing debate surrounding Tebow.

How Much Is Too Much Religion In Sports?

How Much Is Too Much Religion In Sports?

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Quarterback Tim Tebow's ritual of pointing to the sky and taking to knee in prayer has gone viral. Fans call the Denver Broncos' player 'God's Quarterback,' but detractors say Jesus doesn't belong on the field. Host Michel Martin speaks with writer Tom Krattenmaker about the ongoing debate surrounding Tebow.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear what some of you have to say about this week's program. Our BackTalk segment is in just a few minutes. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, and once in a while, the intersection with sports.

And if you are a pro football fan and keep tabs on the Denver Broncos, then you could not miss the down-to-the-wire play that has pulled out seven of their last eight victories. And chances are, you also noticed quarterback Tim Tebow, who not only made the play but also points to the sky and takes a knee in prayer afterward.

Sports announcers don't seem to know what to make of it.


STEPHEN SMITH: I'm saying that people think it's divine intervention and I got to admit to you, this past Sunday that's what came to my mind. Because it certainly wasn't me looking at him and saying, wow, he can really play.

MARTIN: That was Stephen Smith on ESPN, but the Tebow phenomenon has moved beyond sports commentators and is stirring a debate among fans and people really who even aren't really big football fans. Supporters are calling him God's quarterback. Detractors are saying Jesus does not belong on the football field.

To talk more about this, we decided to call on Tom Krattenmaker. He writes about religion in public life. We last spoke with him about his book "Onward Christian Athletes" where he takes a critical view of conservative evangelical movements for turning players into preachers, but his views on Tim Tebow may surprise some people. Tom Krattenmaker is with us now. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

TOM KRATTENMAKER: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me on the program.

MARTIN: You know, and I have to say that it was occurring to me that there's no way we can even have this conversation without offending somebody because there are some people for whom it's just a ridiculous question. They'll say, well, of course his faith has something to do with his success.

And there are other people who are going to say, well, it's ridiculous. You know, his faith has nothing to do with his football prowess. But having said that, I wanted to ask what you make of this debate about Tim Tebow's - the intersection of faith and football with Tim Tebow.

KRATTENMAKER: Well, the first thing that needs to be said is that this Tebow phenomenon is huge and it has clearly transcended the sports pages or sports media. It's a national phenomenon. Just last night we have one of the candidates at the GOP debate, Rick Perry, invoking Tebow in his comments.

And I noticed in the news today that some high school kids on Long Island got suspended from Tebowing in the hallway at their school. You know, Tebowing is that pose people strike, mimicking Tebow where you take one knee and you pray. So, as someone who's been following this issue of religion and sports for many years now, and researching it, I'm amazed.

Because of Tim Tebow this whole issue has really gone to the highest possible level.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? Because, as you point out, that he is not the first or only athlete who has brought his faith onto the field, as it were. I mean, I have to tell you that I've been going to pee wee football games since my nephew was a pee wee and I've been seeing this for years. So what is it that you think has brought this out beyond the sports pages?

KRATTENMAKER: It's because Tim Tebow takes everything sort of to the next degree, to the next level of intensity. And not just Tebow himself, but the way people respond to him takes it all to a higher level. It's really a combination of several things. Part of it has to do with Tebow's star qualities and his magnetism. You know, he's an awesome guy.

He was a huge star in college and got tons of media attention, won a couple of national championships, won the Heisman trophy.

MARTIN: As a sophomore.

KRATTENMAKER: Yes. And then there's the fact that he's taken his outspokenness about his faith to a higher level. Remember, he was the guy who wore Scripture verses on his face when he was playing in college and now he's so exuberant and so upfront about his faith he ends every media interview after the game by - or I shouldn't say he ends, he begins the media interviews...

MARTIN: Begins. Mm-hmm.

KRATTENMAKER: thanking and praising Jesus. He also blesses the interviewer, which I think is kind of awesome on his behalf. So the point is this intensity just builds around Tebow and there's really been nobody quite like him.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting too is the intensity of the reaction against it has been interesting. Because there have been people like you, and we're going to get to your personal views in a minute and what you've been writing about in the past, but there have been people like you who have raised questions about particularly the evangelical conservative Christian nature of the public expressions of faith expressed by athletes.

And you've raised the question of, you know, why is it that this particular iteration of Christianity is what we hear more about.


MARTIN: But there were - this week there was a column in Jewish Week, which is a respected outlet, by a rabbi named Joshua Hammerman who wrote about his concerns about connecting wins to divine intervention. He expressed a fear that if Tim Tebow wins the Super Bowl or leads the Denver Broncos to win the Super Bowl, that it will buoy his faithful - I'm quoting now - "his faithful and emboldened faithful can do insane things like burning mosques, bashing gays, and indiscriminately bashing immigrants. And while America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell's first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably."

Now, I have to note. The rabbi personally and Jewish Week have since apologized and taken this column down. But I am curious about why you think it invokes that kind of reaction on the other side.

KRATTENMAKER: You know, I read that column. I didn't realize they took it down, but that was - that was a bit extreme, wasn't it? But it is true that there are many people who find Tebow and Tebow's fans and supporters and promoters to be a threat. I look at it in terms of the culture wars. You know, I've been writing about this for years, this sort of ongoing national argument about the role of evangelical Christianity in politics, in culture.

You have to realize, there are a lot of secular Americans who don't want to hear about religion and they're turned off about evangelical Christians. Maybe they've heard too many pious politicians talking about their faith and even manipulating faith. So there's already been sort of this grudge about the role of evangelical Christians in this culture war that's been going on.

And Tim Tebow walks into that. It's not so much about Tebow because he really is a good guy, but there are certain things about him that sort of set secular and progressive teeth on edge.

MARTIN: Like what?

KRATTENMAKER: And so you see that, and you're seeing people act as though Tebow is a threat and if he's successful it's going to somehow embolden Christians and make them even more assertive and more triumphant.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with writer Tom Krattenmaker. We're talking about the Tebow effect that - this reaction that people seem to have to his very public expressions of faith, which he's been consistent about throughout his playing career since he was in high school and throughout college, but now seems to have gotten a lot more attention as he's led the Denver Broncos to some remarkable last-minute victories - seven of the eight last victories in the fourth quarter or even in overtime and some are wondering whether his faith has something to do with it. Others are saying no.

But to that end, though, you know, you were saying that there are those who would argue, what is wrong with having somebody, first of all, people have a First Amendment right to express their faith, do they not?


MARTIN: And secondly, other people would say, okay, so you've got guys who are throwing money around in strip clubs and causing, you know, mini riots in strip clubs. You've got guys drunk driving, killing people, you know, being at the center of fights, all kinds of ugly behavior by, you know, professional athletes, and people are going to get upset about a guy who prays after a good play? And there are those who would say: Really?

KRATTENMAKER: You know, I really think it has been an overreaction and I think I was somewhat guilty of that myself a couple years ago. But Tim Tebow is genuinely a good guy and I've never heard him talk trash about anybody. Yes, he did do an ad with Focus on the Family and it was sort of making the pro-life mess-- bringing forward the pro-life message.

But for the most part, Tebow has just gone out there, played football hard, talked exuberantly about his faith. He's done genuinely good deeds for lots of people, including prisoners, which I respect. He seems to treat everybody well. He's been under intense scrutiny, yet I don't know of any missteps where he's gotten in any trouble for drunken driving, as you mentioned, or trouble with women.

The guy has seriously walked the talk and because of that, I think that he has a right - I mean, everybody has a right to talk about his faith but with Tebow it deserves more of a hearing and more respect because the guy's actions line up with his faith commitments.

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to ask you about that because we have a couple minutes left. We have about two minutes left. So I'm going to ask you about that. In 2009 you wrote a very critical commentary about Tebow and his father's faith organization. His father is an evangelical preacher. And you said that he subscribes to an exclusionary form of evangelical Christianity and, you know, and so forth.

But now you say - in one of your columns that ran in the Washington Post you say that Tebow has earned the right to share his religious message more than any religious athlete who comes to mind. What do you mean by that?

KRATTENMAKER: I think because his behavior has been so exemplary. Maybe I'm making up a rule here in saying that those who walk the talk have more of a right but I think there's something to that. And because of my ongoing research and my work on changes that are happening within evangelicalism, I think there's this notion in the culture that if Christians are going to be listened to, taken seriously, that a lot of it has to do with their behavior.

And that's probably the most important thing. If evangelicals are going to represent the faith and bring it forward in a culture that is, frankly, more secular, more pluralistic, and I think Tim Tebow is tapping into that formula. I, for one, like the guy more and more and I'm more willing to consider the positive virtues of his faith. You know, people say God has nothing to do with it, whether a team wins or loses or Tebow plays well or not. And I don't believe there's any divine intervention, obviously.

But I do think the guy's faith gives him psychological strength and helps him be successful and helps him get his teammates to rally around him. It gives him a confidence and a boldness that you just can't ignore.

MARTIN: And finally, Tom, before we let you go, do you think people will care as much if he starts losing?

KRATTENMAKER: Well, I think the cynics will jump on it and the snarky people will have more of a field day. But the thing is, I don't think Tebow has ever said that it's divine intervention that's helping him. So, yes, I think we will see that cynicism and I don't think it'll be entirely deserved. Give the guy a break.

MARTIN: OK. Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life. He's also the author of "Onward Christian Athletes," which takes a skeptical view of the role of religion, particularly in sports. Tom, I don't know, are you a convert?

KRATTENMAKER: Well, if he beats Brady and the Patriots on Sunday, maybe I will be.

MARTIN: OK. He was kind enough to join us from Portland, Oregon. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

KRATTENMAKER: Thanks for having me on, Michel.

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