Idol Chatter

Somewhere in academia, a grad student in cultural anthropology is already writing his or her dissertation using Super Bowls ads to deconstruct the history of modern America, a job that got easier last week when CBS reversed its policy against controversial advocacy ads and agreed to show a pro-life Super Bowl commercial starring University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
Not to step on your lines, Mr. or Ms. Future Professor, but the ensuing battle about abortion, separation between church and Super Bowl, and whether an evangelical dude who cries when he loses the SEC Championship can be sexy, cemented Super Bowl advertising’s place as an institution where we Americans hash out ideas, on a par with the Supreme Court and “The Simpsons.”

Lest it go unnoticed amid the flying accusations of hypocrisy and homophobia, I want to point out Jason Fagone’s essay in Slate, touted as “the real meaning” of Tebow’s ad. The gist of the article is that Tebow, a son of Christian missionaries who letters Bible verses on his eye black, is not an evangelical for show: he really believes this stuff. “The true extent and character of Tebow’s faith has always flown under the media radar,” Fagone writes, improbably, since Tebow’s Christianity is one of the first things sports fans know about him. Fagone, who wrote a profile about Tebow for GQ last fall, chastises himself for not pressing Tebow on his “ultraconservative” beliefs on gay marriage and Islam. His own failure, Fagone admits, is part of “some queasiness on the part of media elites (me included) over the idea that [Tebow’s] family really believes what it says it believes.”
Fagone’s admission is refreshingly honest, but he overcorrects for his sin. He cites maloderous statements about Islam made by Tebow’s sometime pastor, Florida megachurch leader Jerry Vines, and pulls scary apocalyptic quotes from Tebow’s father’s ministry’s website. As President Obama can tell you, it’s unfair to paste people with their pastor’s words, and it’s hardly controversial for an evangelical preacher to predict that the Second Coming is going to get a little bumpy.
Anyway, the content of Tebow’s belief is not really the issue. The syndrome that Fagone identifies is our confusion of ability with “coolness”: we can’t imagine that anyone able to throw a ball as well as Tebow could believe something that makes so little sense to us. The same disconnect applies to Tebow’s counterparts Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford, both Division I quarterbacks who, in McCoy’s words in a new faith-based campaign called “I Am Second,” “play the game for God.”
The real meaning of Tebow’s ad has a lot more to do with CBS’s economics than Tebow’s faith. The real meaning behind Fagone’s article is that the media still has only two ways of dealing with evangelicals: to dismiss them as intolerant imbeciles or to dismiss their faith as a pose. Fagone realizes that Tebow really believes, but he hasn’t learned anythying.

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