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Because of the combination of his outspoken religious beliefs and his unconventional style of football, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow became a polarizing symbol of evangelical Christianity over the last few months.

However, he is widely admired for his off-season charity work in the Philippines, where he was born to a family of Christian missionaries. But the history of American missionary work in the island nation is far more sordid than the story told in the American media, which tends to take a rather naïve view of American conduct overseas.

After nearly 400 years as a Spanish colony, the Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, with 81% of the population recognizing Jesus as their personal savior. With abortion outlawed, birth control frowned upon, and gay marriage forbidden, it’s a far more Christian society than the U.S. Its birth rate, the highest in Asia, is one of the main drivers of poverty, as millions of Filipinos, including my mother, have emigrated to nearly every corner of the Earth to find jobs.

Whatever problems the Philippines have, a lack of Christianity isn’t one of them.

In 1898, after conquering the island country during the Spanish-American War, President McKinley decided that the U.S. needed to stay and “Christianize” the overwhelmingly Catholic natives, in order to “educate, uplift and civilize them."

A brutal 14-year guerrilla war ensued, with the U.S. eventually suppressing the insurgency while establishing the two largest American military installations in the world — the Naval Base in Subic Bay and the Clark Air Force Base. American military expansion in the Pacific exacerbated tensions with Japan, and the Philippines was caught in the cross-fire, the site of the biggest naval battles in world history during World War II.

From Spain to England and the U.S., imperial powers have long used religion as a pretext to justify colonization. Franciscan priests and missionaries accompanied the Spanish conquistadors throughout the New World, converting the natives to Christianity while looking the other way as men like Cortes and Pizarro carted away as much gold as they could carry.

But for most Americans, the history of imperialism and “the White Man’s Burden” mentality that supported it have nothing to do with Tebow’s work overseas. After all, how can you knock a man for helping build a children’s hospital?

But the real question is why can’t he do that in the United States? Are there not American children who could use better medical care? Why not work with an orphanage in Denver’s inner city or volunteer with social services in Gainesville, Florida?

It’s this same mentality that lets Americans believe our military adventures in the Middle East are about “promoting democracy.” Never mind that the U.S. has consistently aided military dictatorships throughout the Arab World over the last generation, from Turkey to Egypt and Pakistan, in an effort to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from taking control. If people elect Islamic parties, those elections become inherently illegitimate, as Hamas found out in Palestine.

Only in America could President Obama’s speech justifying the war in Libya “because the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries” be taken seriously. The very same month that the American military began the massive bombing campaign to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power, which had nothing to do with promoting U.S. commercial interests in Libya, America was actively supporting the monarchy in Bahrain in their efforts to subdue a population wrapped up in the grips of the Arab Spring.

From another perspective, the blatant cultural imperialism that Tebow represents is pretty obvious. What would the U.S. public think if former Real Madrid soccer star Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim from France, began an Islamic orphanage in New York City? The “Ground Zero mosque” wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.

Whatever American intentions are overseas, our history of military aggression has severely damaged our credibility. If the U.S. is going to use our military abroad, one with a budget as big as the next eight biggest military budgets in the world combined, there’s no need to pretend that we’re doing it for anyone but ourselves.

And if Tim Tebow wants to spread the gospel, he should remember that charity starts at home.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons