America’s culture wars have been raging for decades, but individual battles can be surprisingly swift. Less than two weeks ago, Right Wing Watch broke the news that Tim Tebow, a New York Jets football player famously outspoken about his Christian faith, was scheduled to speak at a Dallas megachurch pastored by the antigay, anti-Catholic, anti-just-about-anything pastor Robert Jeffress.
The Advocate was among the news outlets that picked up the story, which moved from gay and progressive media into the mainstream press and even into the sports pages. A New York Daily News columnist decried Tebow’s “hate date” with Jeffress. An alumnus of the University of Florida, where Tebow had led a national championship team, started a petition to Tebow on Change.org.
Pastor Jeffress tried to salvage Tebow’s planned visit by making the rounds on conservative radio to decry the “media frenzy” and portray himself as the victim of people opposed to God’s word and a secular media that fails to understand Christian teaching. He said he thought Tebow would make his planned visit as long as the athlete listened more to the Holy Spirit than to his handlers.
But that’s not what happened. Tebow tweeted that he had decided to cancel his appearance “due to new information that has been brought to my attention.”
And abruptly, the conservative Christian media that had been backing Tebow turned against him. Radio host and American Family Association spokesman Brian Fischer said Tebow had been “week-kneed” and “cowardly.” The American Family Association slammed Tebow and urged people to vent their anger by using the hashtag #TebowCaves.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the AFA’s virtual tar-and-feathering. The AFA’s taunting response was denounced by the group’s own supporters in a flood of comments. Many said the AFA’s bullying of Tebow was un-Christian. The response was so strong the AFA pulled its original attack on Tebow and replaced it with an article putting the blame squarely on the media.
Huffington Post religion editor Paul Raushenbush, who called Tebow’s cancellation a “miracle,” said he “has officially placed the political religious right to the far margins of society.”
Raushenbush is getting at something. Professional sports are surely an outpost of plenty of macho-posturing masculinity. But how remarkable that the most outspoken professional athletes around the 2012 marriage initiatives were pro-equality NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe.
Clearly it's an overstatement to say the religious right has been pushed to the far margins of society. The movement still has a huge educational, cultural, and political infrastructure, and significant power in state legislatures, governorships, and Congress, especially in regions of the country where conservative evangelicals dominate. But the movement’s hostility to the basic dignity and equality of LGBT people is increasingly putting it at odds with American culture and even with younger evangelicals and conservatives.
Of course Jeffress and his allies do not see it that way, and they do not see this moment as an opportunity to reflect on the wisdom of their extremism. They see it as confirmation for the kind of anti-Christian persecution they attribute to gays, “the left,” and the Obama administration. Rick Warren tweeted that Tebow had been “bullied.”
This past Sunday Jeffress stood in his pulpit and vowed defiantly that as long as he is pastor of First Baptist Dallas, “we are not going to kneel before political correctness and convenience.” Jeffress ticked off a list of conservative Christian leaders who had spoken up in his defense, saying he was grateful for those he said were willing to “act like men” rather than “wimping out.” Perhaps responding to Tebow’s comments that he had been hoping to share with the congregation the unconditional love of Jesus, Jeffress said, “You cannot talk about the love of God, the love of God has no meaning whatsoever, unless you understand the judgment of God that all of us deserve.”
Jeffress is of course free to continue preaching the judgment of God on gays and anyone whose theology differs from his. And Americans are free to make their own judgments about him. Thanks to right-wing watchers, the social media, and what seems like a heartfelt decision from Tebow to step away from Jeffress, millions of Americans have heard about a Christian football player who decided not to speak at a church once he learned that its leader was a peddler of antigay prejudice and religious bigotry. That is a culture war victory.
PETER MONTGOMERY is blogger for Right Wing Watch, a service of People for the American Way.