Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins took after Bill Maher in the Sunday paper. "I don’t believe in any religion that requires a building and loan payments, she wrote. "Nevertheless, I’m having a hard time seeing anything wrong with Tim Tebow taking a prayer knee in public. The knee seems a pretty plain and graceful statement, and it’s tiresome to see it so willfully misinterpreted. It’s the preachers from the top of Mount Idiot like Bill Maher who are hard to understand."
She added: "If you want to know Maher’s overriding philosophy on anything, you have to go back to high school and the stoner in the last row, surrounded by sycophants as he makes ugly cracks about his betters."
Jenkins is not toeing a line. She also defended Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in 2009 for getting photographed with a bong and getting "sweetly baked in hay," but she backed Tebow last year on the "controversial" ad no one had yet seen.
Set aside the intriguing question of whether Maher would have the nerve if Tebow were Muslim. Or whether he’s funny. (He’s not, really. Monty Python is.) What’s more interesting is why Maher, and other political commentators from Bill Press to David Shuster, feel compelled to rip on Tebow simply for kneeling.
“I’m tired of hearing Tim Tebow and all this Jesus talk,” Press said, adding a profane suggestion that Tebow should shut up. They act like he’s trying to personally strip them of their religious liberty, manipulate the markets, and take over our strategic oil transport routes.
What is so threatening about Tebow? It can’t be his views. Tebow has never once suggested God cares about football. Quite the opposite. It’s Maher and company who stupidly suggest a Tebow touchdown scores one for Evangelicals whereas an interception somehow chalks one up for atheism. Anyone who listens to Tebow knows he doesn’t do Jesus talk, he’s mostly show and no tell. His idea of proselytizing is to tweet an abbreviated Bible citation. Mark 8:36. He leaves it up to you whether to look it up. When he takes a knee, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s an expression of humility. He’s crediting his perceived source, telling himself, don’t forget where you came from. On the whole, it’s more restrained than most end-zone shimmies.
So why does Tebow’s expression of faith make people so silly-crazy? Why do they care what he does?
Because he emphasizes the aspect of his talent that is given, not earned.
And that makes people nervous. The reactions to Tebow seem to fall under the category of what theologian Michael J. Murray calls “Theo-phobia.” In his essay “Who’s Afraid of Religion?” Murray argues we’re ill at ease with intrusions of personal faith. We fear they could lead to oppression, or mania, or even prove us wrong.
Jenkins concluded: "Belittle Tebow if you must. But the trouble with shouting down Tebow’s religion, never mind the sheer offensiveness, is the same trouble with shouting down any other form of inspired expression. Do that, and you also shout down mystery, possibility, surprise. And some perfectly good questions. You drown out an awful lot that’s of interest, whether you agree with it or not."
[Hat tip to my son Ben, who somehow beat me to the Sports section.]