Commentary: Deliver us from the overly devout

The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-EnquirerDecember 7, 2011 

Count me among those pulling for Tim Tebow.

Frankly, I don’t think the former University of Florida star now playing for the Denver Broncos has much of a chance at long-term stardom in the NFL, at least not as a quarterback. But right now he’s winning, and he’s exciting, and I like the kid. At least I like what I know about him, which is what most of us know, which is what we see and hear on TV. He’s a great story, like most underdogs who seem to be good guys.

Here’s what he isn’t: He isn’t a doctrinal obligation on anybody’s part to root for his team or his success because he’s a Christian.

For what it’s worth, I think he sincerely is. A good Christian, I mean. Not because he always works Jesus into sports interviews (the list of jocks who have done that includes some major league blowhards and slimebags), but because the evidence of his life off the field is pretty eloquent witness that the guy doesn’t just talk the talk.

And while many of my fellow believers have drafted him into the unfortunate cultural category of religious hero, it’s not a role Tebow himself seems to wallowing in. In this age of shameless hypocrites and latter-day Pharisees, that alone is a relief.

Where many of us get exasperated with our brothers and sisters in the faith -- and I’m far from alone here -- is in this curious mental and moral universe where almost anything sincerely said or done in the name of Christianity automatically demands our support.

The word I would choose to describe that fallacy isn’t one I’d use in church.

It ought to be an obvious point but apparently isn’t: Human claims to godly virtue are not divinely binding. You don’t have to be a theologian or biblical scholar to understand that, or look far in scripture to find it. (The sixth chapter of Matthew, as I’ve noted before, seems to have been expunged from contemporary Bibles.) Somebody’s claim that his life, his actions, his convictions or his politics represent Christian principles doesn’t make it so, and the rest of us aren’t obliged to buy it.

Yet a police chief in south Alabama gets publicity for giving criminals the choice of church or jail, and good Christians are supposed to line up behind him. A judge puts a religious display up in “his” court -- a public facility funded with the tax money of Muslims and Buddhists and, yes, nonbelievers as well as Christians -- and pulpits resound with a call to spiritual arms. A sincere but misguided young man is ordered not to evangelize patrons at a public library, and we’re supposed to see this as religious persecution.

It’s a pretty safe guess that at least some of the library patrons who complained at being accosted about their spiritual lives are religious people. So am I, in my own deeply flawed way. But when I’m on the beach reading a treasured old paperback, listening to ancient radio rock and roll and perhaps enjoying a cold malt beverage, I try -- politely -- to dissuade earnest-looking people descending upon me with religious tracts.

And while the idea of criminals turning their lives around through faith (indeed, it happens) is an inspiring one, you don’t have to be a cynic or a militant atheist to wonder if sentencing people to church doesn’t, well, sort of miss the whole point.

If God judges us on religious allegiance to pamphleteers on the beach, proselytizers at libraries, publicly devout sports figures, police chiefs and politicians, then I’ll answer for my lack of it at the throne of judgment.

There are plenty of things I have ample reason to worry about come Judgment Day. I’m fairly sure none of the above will be among them.

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