Nearer, My Gods to Thee: Notes on the Media's Adulatory Coverage of Christian Athletes‏

I’m not at all offended personally by Derek Johnson’s opinion piece ‘Journalism’s Fear of Jesus: The Passion of the Tebow’ -- but I do think that  its central contention cannot be supported by facts, and this can be confirmed with a simple search of newspaper articles.   I if anybody wants to check my numbers:

In the 12 months ending July 1, there were 3,421 articles with the keyword ‘Tebow’ in the headline.  If I add the search ‘Christian’, there were 460 articles.  Now, let’s put that into better perspective.  

Over the same time interval, there were 3,293 headlines answering to the keyword ‘LeBron’.  That means there were more articles written about a third string QB on a 6-10 team who struggled to find a job after being cut than were written about the greatest basketball player of his generation, who had just won both a championship and his fourth MVP trophy. 

Searching for ‘Adrian Peterson’ also yields terrific insight into why there is good reason to be skeptical of these claims.  There were 1,292 articles in the past year (I searched for ‘Peterson’ in the headline with ‘Vikings’ in any text, because many headlines just use the last name and his is very common) written with Adrian Peterson in the headline.   

Think about it: Adrian Peterson had one of the great individual seasons in NFL history, and Tebow accounted for 39 passing yards, yet for every three newspaper articles in the last year about Peterson being a football player, there was one about Tim Tebow being a Christian.  Who wrote those articles? The media.  

Let’s also not ignore the fact that the media runs faith specific articles and stories on athletes all the time.  How else did I find out that Tim Tebow went on a mission trip to the Phillipines and performed circumcisions?  Or that Matt Barkley led his team on mission trips to Haiti and Africa?  Or that Ray Lewis believed Jesus destined the Ravens to win the Super Bowl?  For Lewis, incidentally, there were two SI cover stories dealing with his faith directly. One of those actually called him 'God's Linebacker.'

I could go on. If the media is conspiring to blot out mentions of Christian faith, how did I see a pro-life Super Bowl ad featuring Tim Tebow? How did I see another Super Bowl ad (from Focus on the Family, no less) quoting John 3:16?  I only saw them because the largest media outlets in the world ran those very Christian ads to the largest viewing audience in the world on the biggest day of the year.

I also want to mention the media’s ebullient reaction to Tebow’s playoff appearance, when he passed for 316 yards. Newspapers fell all over themselves to point out the parallels to John 3:16.  In fact, searching for ‘Tebow’ and ‘3:16’ -- colon included to ensure that we’re only getting references to the Bible verse -- for the single week after that game (Jan 8-15, 2012) pulls in 131 articles.  This is the most overtly religious Tebow reference you can ask for, and in the space of a SINGLE WEEK it got 25-30% of the coverage that Aaron Rodgers (517) and RGIII (451) got for the entire 2012 season.   

A side note about those same Christians being intimidated into private worship: I recommend reading from Matthew 6:6.

"But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (NRSV)

Quiet practice of Christian faith isn't a sign that people of faith have been browbeaten into silence by a godless society.  More accurately, it's wholly consonant with the explicit instructions of Jesus Christ, and should be observed by more Christians, not fewer.

There remains another athlete whose coverage embodies current journalistic attitudes toward religious faith even more comprehensively than Tebow's does: Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton.  Hamilton, as we all know, is a recovering addict who credits his faith in Jesus with his sobriety and success.  The article linked below is awash in references to Hamilton's Christian faith and the impact it's had on his life.

Here's another, that would actually make a fine testimonial at any church in America next Sunday morning. Hamilton talks religion in more direct terms than we've ever heard Tebow do. The man had a dream where Jesus helped him fight the devil. And those 'jackals' in the media printed it.

If Christianity can be reduced to a single thematic arc, it's the belief in forgiveness of personal failures through Christ's grace.  You don't get that story with Tebow, but you do with Hamilton. He's emblematic of the redemptive narrative that has been the blood and marrow of Christianity for two millennia.  You and I wouldn't have heard of either without the eagerness of 'angry liberals' in the media to print triumphalist Christian imagery and messages in their pages.