For Tim Tebow, speaking at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, had to look like a great opportunity. He grew up attending a large Southern Baptist church, and an invitation to speak at one of the most venerable and historic Baptist churches in the world had to look like an easy call. He was going.
All that changed yesterday when Tebow, the National Football League's most prominent evangelical symbol, sent word through Twitter that he was withdrawing from the event. His sudden announcement came after a whirlwind of controversy over his scheduled appearance at the Dallas church. Its senior minister, Robert Jeffress, is no stranger to public controversy. His sound bites are often incendiary, but his convictions—including the exclusivity of the gospel and the belief that homosexual behaviors are sinful—are clearly within the mainstream of American evangelicalism.
While many complained about Jeffress's tone and stridency, the controversy quickly shifted to secular outrage that Tebow would agree to speak to a church known for such beliefs.
Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports warned, "Tim Tebow is about to make the biggest mistake of his life" by speaking at "a hateful Baptist preacher's church." Doyel described Jeffress as "an evangelical cretin" guilty of serial hate speech. Of course, Doyel engaged in hateful and slanderous speech of his own by associating Jeffress with the truly hateful Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Jeffress "isn't as bad as Westboro," Doyel admitted, "But he comes close. Too close."
Other sportswriters piled on. Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post offered his own warning to Tebow: "After a season on the sidelines, the ball's in your hands, Timmy. Better not fumble this one."
The controversy threatened to dominate Tebow's life, so the 25-year-old athlete withdrew, attempting to escape his predicament. Stating that he has wished to "share a message of hope and Christ's unconditional love" with the historic congregation, Tebow said that "due to new information that was brought to my attention" he has decided to cancel the event. He then pledged to use "the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope, and Love to all those needing a brighter day."
If Tebow meant to mollify his critics, it is not likely to work for long. Tebow has identified himself as a vocal evangelical believer. His church roots go deep, and it is safe to say that he has never had a pastor who, though speaking in a different tone, would have disagreed with Jeffress on the exclusivity of Christ and the sinfulness of homosexuality. He has given no indication that he has moved from those convictions, and his closest friends assure that he has not.
Writing at The Huffington Post, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush made it clear the controversy wasn't just a matter of Jeffress's tone, conceding, "while Dr. Jeffress has a tendency not to sugarcoat his feelings," he is nonetheless voicing what evangelical Christians "have been saying for a long time." The central scandal here is the belief that Jesus is the only Savior and that homosexual behavior is sin. In terms of the larger public debate, it is the issue of homosexuality that has predominated the larger public debate... at least for now.
The Tebow controversy comes just weeks after evangelical pastor Louie Giglio withdrew from delivering a prayer at President Barack Obama's second inaugural ceremony. Giglio had been "outed" as having preached a message almost 20 years ago that affirmed the sinfulness of homosexuality and stressed that the "only way out of a homosexual lifestyle… is through the healing power of Jesus."