Championship Winner’s Witness Criticized

As noted at the ChristianPost, Tim Tebow (as discussed previously) donned a new verse on the blacks under his eyes during his victory in the 2009 College Championship football game: John 3:16.

An atheist blogger had this initial (unedited) response:

I just want to watch a football game; I don’t want to be prosetylized to.

While he later qualified his own cynicism, he demonstrated an interesting and increasingly common prejudice toward public expressions of Christianity.  First, beyond the spelling error, “proselytize” is a poorly–or perhaps intentionally–chosen word that conveys an inaccurate meaning.

Proselytize has become more commonly used among critics of Christianity because of its apparent stigma; that is, the spectre of forced conversion.  It literally means “to convert.”  The problem is that most evangelical Christians–the ones accused of “proselytizing”–would describe their actions as evangelizing, which means “to preach to.”  To evangelize is to offer someone information, but to leave them to their own decision.  To proselytize (or convert) can be understood as to take action against them.  Even critics of Christianity see the nuanced difference–which is precisely why they emphasize the latter term.

The second seeming prejudice is that public expressions of Christianity are affronts that should be controlled.  Contrary to the implication that “John 3:16” is proselytizing, the mere reference is not the hypnotic statement of persuasion that it is implied to be:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

It is a statement of faith and personal belief, nothing more.  It does not accuse, demean, or denigrate.  It is, in effect, a passive statement (and one that was only available if the TV viewers either already knew the verse or took the initiative to look it up).  It certainly invites further consideration, but it demands nothing.

Consider this rephrasing of the criticism:

I just want to watch a football game; I didn’t want to see his witness.

It still describes the situation, but perhaps more accurately, as it lays the responsibility for the feeling of “offense” on the observer, rather than the actor.  The blogger’s initial statement was virtually an accusation of wrongdoing, while the rewording displays that it is the observer’s perceptions that are at issue, not Tebow’s actions.  A frequent–if somewhat oversimplified–phrase often quoted in situations like this is

There is no Constitutional protection from offense.  In fact, Constitutional protections make it more likely that you will be offended.

After allowing that it wasn’t that bad for Tebow to do what he did, the atheist blogger continues

I have to wonder if his coaches or NCAA officials would allow him to have “There Is” “No God” written on his eye black below his right and left eyes.

His concern may be valid, but probably for different reasons than he would expect: it would be a public relations decision, not a religious one.  It is probably true that organizations reliant on recruiting are more likely to restrict the apparent support of atheism than they are that of religion.

Otherwise, the statement that “there is no God” is not, in and of itself, accusatory, demeaning, or denigrating, though it is somewhat less subtle than Tebow’s.  (Contrast that phrase with “Religion is a myth,” which has been used, and has been called denigrating.)

A more basic question would be the motivation.  A person of faith expresses aspects of their religion because it is a core part of their life and being.  For Tebow, this requires no further proof; his faith is publicly evident in every aspect of his life.

While it is possible, it seems highly improbable that an atheist would be so driven by his belief in no God that he would feel the desire to express that faith during his times of struggle or triumph.  It would seem more reasonable that an atheist would instead express aspects of that which did drive him; as a hypothetical, references to family or core values.  For that reason, an atheist that chose to make reference to “no God” in his football uniform would probably be perceived to be countering other religious expressions, not expressing a core drive in his life.

Some would argue, too, that “John 3:16” is a subtle way of saying “there is a God,” and there are already plenty of equally subtle statements in everyday life–whether by celebrities, economists, politicians, advertisers, etc–that say “there is no God.”

Why does any of this matter to military Christians?  As noted earlier, a simple expression of faith was described–even if innocently or inadvertently–as an attempt at aggressive Christian conversion.  This cultural perspective is becoming more common in reporting on religious issues.  In non-Christian reporting it is far less common to read about Christians “evangelizing;” more common now is “Christian proselytizing.”  That terminology conveys a stigma regardless of the religious (or a-religious) sect with which such a phrase is associated. 

That same cultural philosophy is what drives both the terminology and crusades of organizations and people that oppose “illegal Christian proselytizing” in the US military.  Even though “evangelicals” are some of their main targets, they accuse them not of “evangelism” but of “proselytizing.”  Average citizens may tend to agree with calls to restrict the actions associated with such negative connotations.  That is the very reason activists use the semantics they do.

What average citizens may fail to realize, however, is that what one group calls “illegal proselytizing” may be what another group feels is “religious expression” or “free exercise”–a concept protected by the Constitution even, in some cases, in the armed forces.  (As noted above, contrary to the atheist’s description, Tebow’s Biblical reference was not proselytizing.)  Ignorance or naivete in the general public about life in the military will likely be addressed by the news media.  If the only voices heard are those that cry “unConstitutional Christian proselytizing in the military,” that may be what is taken as truth–regardless of the fact that it is not.

Merely expressing a religious faith as a student or a military member is not wrong, illegal, unethical, or legitimate grounds for calls to restrict religious expression.  There are those, though, who are not only loudly proclaiming that it is illegal, but that it is also one of the greatest threats to this country’s national security.

Just imagine what the reaction would have been if Tebow had been wearing the football uniform of the Air Force Academy’s Falcons.