Thursday, May 9, 2013

Is Tim Tebow the Last Evangelical Celebrity?

Evangelicalism has always been a celebrity-driven culture.  In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries evangelical celebrities were usually evangelists.  Think Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Sunday, and Graham.  Today, while pastors and preachers still rank pretty high on the celebrity scale (think about Joel Osteen or Rick Warren), evangelicals have also turned to athletes, movie stars, and musicians to represent them in the public sphere. 

Over at Slate, Daniel D'Addario wonders if Tim Tebow may be the last great evangelical celebrity in America.  As some of you know, the controversial quarterback and hero to evangelical Christians everywhere, was recently cut by the New York Jets.  Here is a taste of D'Addario's piece:

Tim Tebow, who captivated the nation in the 2011 football season with simultaneous unlikely wins and outspoken public faith, may never Tebow in front of thousands of fans again. Having been released by the New York Jets, some speculate he may need to consider a future in sportscasting, as there are few open positions he could occupy. He’s been offered a position on an Omaha indoor football team, but maybe his biggest role — as the evangelical world’s biggest star — seems fumbled.

But who is there to fill his spikes? Not so very long ago, Billy Graham counseled presidents (including President Obama, in 2010), but his heir, Franklin Graham, hasn’t been nearly as popular (or, well, politic). Various celebrities tied to the evangelical label flee the designation, from actor Denzel Washington (who recently refused to tell a GQ interviewer his views on gay marriage but hinted he didn’t approve) to Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford (whose parents lead the evangelical Christian Vineyard Movement but who has said, “I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. [...] I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was”) to theater actress Kristin Chenoweth (who calls herself a “non-judgmental, liberal Christian”).

In a post-Tebow era, the most prominent public evangelicals, like Houston Rockets star Jeremy Lin, are quieter about their faith. John S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor and the author of “The Great Evangelical Recession,” told Salon that these are hard times for the faithful generally. He noted that the number of evangelicals in America had long been overstated (he numbers “boots-on-the-ground” active evangelicals at 7 percent of the population), and said that movement on gay rights issues has left “evangelicalism” a dirty word.

If history is any indication, more celebrities are on the way.  Evangelicals, unfortunately, have never been able to live without them. Stay tuned.