Tim Tebow has managed to find himself in the middle of yet another religious controversy. Just weeks after declining to speak at First Baptist Dallas megachurch, likely due to its pastor’s inflammatory comments towards Muslims, Jews, and the LGBT community, Tebow is headed to Liberty University, a private Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Tebow is scheduled to speak on Friday, March 8 as a part of the university’s convocation, presented as “North America's largest weekly gathering of Christian students.” The conference is themed around men’s issues, with workshops covering hunting, fishing, football, home defense, marriage, baseball, and disaster preparedness. The event will be closed to the public, with the university citing limited seating.
The decision to speak at Liberty has upset many of the LGBT and civil rights advocates who protested Tebow’s planned attendance at First Baptist Dallas. Critics aren't taking aim at the workshop schedule, but rather the history and views of the university. Liberty was founded in 1971 by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, no stranger to controversy. Gay students are banned and the school has a strict honor code, forbidding non-marital sexual relations as well as “the encouragement or advocacy of any form of sexual behavior that would undermine the Christian identity or faith mission of the University.”
In many ways, Tebow is the anti-Falwell. In contrast to Falwell’s political activism, Tebow understands his faith as a deeply personal issue. No one can doubt the sincerity of his religious convictions, present throughout his personal and professional life, but he doesn't use his beliefs heavy-handedly. Avoiding proselytism in the traditional sense, he prefers to use his personal life as an example of his faith, and avoids politically sensitive topics entirely.
With his personal approach toward faith, Tebow stands as an example to a growing group of young Christians. “Tebow is part of a movement of ‘cosmopolitan Christians,’ ” offers D. Michael Lindsay, a scholar on the evangelical movement. “They’re more media savvy than their forebears and they understand the importance of building bridges. They speak more about what they’re for than what they’re against. It speaks for that segment of the evangelical community that wants to spend energy on things for the common good rather than be a lightning rod.”
Tebow and young Christians like him stand in sharp contrast with the evangelical old guard, a group more comfortable with religio-political icons such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. For many of these evangelicals, a central constituency within the Republican Party, social conservatism, and political activism are intertwined with personal faith. And it’s this latter group that serves as the general perception of evangelical Christianity.
Caught between a politically engaged evangelical community, and an American public suspicious of its political ambitions, Tim Tebow is faced with a difficult path. Certainly, he is free to decide where and when to speak, regardless of anyone else’s opinions. But by affiliating himself with particular evangelical figures and institutions, he takes on their political baggage as well, and risks alienating not only fans, but those young, “cosmopolitan Christians” drawn by his profoundly personal, and apolitical, faith.