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Byrne: Tim Tebow in the secular city

Tim Tebow in New York by artist Janet

Tim Tebow in New York by artist Janet Hamlin

Tebow and the Jets -- how's that going to fly?

When it became public that Denver Broncos quarterback and Christian poster boy Tim Tebow was coming to New York, that was the big question.

How will it fly for a transplant from the conservative Christian heartland to play for a team in the world center of religious pluralism? For someone who doesn't take the Lord's name in vain to work for famous cusser Rex Ryan? For someone who abstains from sex before marriage to hang with randy Jets teammates?

It will fly just fine.

It will fly because Tebow is already accustomed to confronting all that. Conservative Christians rely on a contrast with the rest of the world to help make their version of the gospel urgent and appealing. Greater New York is just more of the same.

Besides, meshing religion and sports is nothing new -- not even in New York.

Throughout American history, religious groups have championed winning athletes or teams that carried hopes for visibility, legitimacy and, yes, evangelism -- even if the message was just that members of their faith are normal Americans like everyone else. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax did that for Jews, just as Knute Rockne's Notre Dame football teams had done it for Catholics, and Houston Rockets basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon went on to do for Muslims.

While New York has a reputation for godlessness, both city and state actually have higher rates of membership in organized religion than the country as a whole. In 2000, the proportion of state residents who belonged to some religious body was 76 percent -- compared with 61 percent in the United States as a whole -- according to an analysis by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge. Even higher numbers specifically for the tristate region put it in the top 9 percent of urban areas in terms of religiosity, ahead of Salt Lake City and Little Rock.

Still, those who raised their eyebrows about Tebow's arrival had a point. While New York is very religious, it isn't religious in Tebow's way: conservative Protestant. The state has proportionally far more Jews and Catholics than the rest of the country. The percentage of Muslims is only 2 percent -- but that's double the figure in America at large. In contrast, while the national proportion of conservative Protestants is 28 percent, the state population is 5 percent.


So it may not be Tebow's being religious that raises eyebrows. Rather, it could be conservative Protestantism's tendency to involve public proclamation. New Yorkers believe just as much, but they are less likely to talk about it openly.

One reason is the area's religious diversity. When you have co-workers and neighbors from different faith backgrounds, you simply don't have the same uncontested space to talk about your spiritual beliefs. Talking about faith is a minefield. It's a minefield that some New Yorkers happily step into -- as subway proselytizers attest -- but it seems most religious tristaters decide that the bustle of metropolitan life provides plenty enough daily fight.

Also, the variety of religions here coincides with the variety of ethnic, racial and national backgrounds. It's interesting to note that the other big story line about a New York athlete this year -- the sudden rise of Knicks' point guard Jeremy Lin -- focused far less on religion than it did on race. Most of the initial coverage about Lin centered around his Asian heritage and his Harvard degree. His devout Christianity, while noted, wasn't fodder for tabloid headlines, as it has been for Tebow.


There's yet another reason that public styles of religion are not as common in New York: The region may be one of the most religious in the United States, but at the same time, it's also one of the most secular.

That's because in such a religiously pluralistic environment, social patterns emerge to create a nonreligious public space: secularism. Most religious studies scholars now view religion and secularism not as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin.

One pattern they've found is that neighbors who see one another practicing different faiths decide that other religions aren't so bad after all. But this also waters down the strength of their own faith. People figure that if this other religion turns out pretty decent people too, the absolute truth of their own may be relative.

Also, when it's a minefield to talk about your religion publicly, you translate it into common words, values and activities that are no longer religiously specific, even if they probably still reflect the dominant Christianity.

Finally, people partake in activities that embrace widely shared values -- activities that bond people and create what sociologist Emile Durkheim called "collective effervescence." Secular activities like volunteering for the PTA, camping out for "Hunger Games" tickets or watching a baseball game on Opening Day create a feeling of connectedness.

For many Americans, then, sports is religion -- not despite being secular, but because it is secular. It transforms religion into something we can all talk about. You still have the saved and unsaved. But it's an argument about the Jets versus the Giants or the Mets versus the Yankees, not about whether your neighbor will go to heaven or hell.

Perhaps Tebow's joining the Jets can give New Yorkers an education about the area's abundant religiosity. But New Yorkers might end up giving Tebow an education, too. No one's asking him to change. But just being here, where public proclamation meets tension, where the secular is not the opposite of faith but its twin, Tebow might see a new thing.

To paraphrase the New Testament writer of 1 John 3:2: It does not yet appear what he shall be.

Julie Byrne, associate professor of religion and Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman Chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, is author of “O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs.”