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Tim Tebow may be the most popular Christian in sports. He is a cross-cultural phenomenon, a preacher in a football player's body.
Whether religion is at the core of his popularity is debatable. But between the caricatures on one end and the deification on the other end, those with an opinion of Tebow -- and that counts just about everyone -- may not have an understanding of his religious beliefs beyond the broad label of evangelical Christian.
As he demonstrates in interviews and throughout his book, in his frequent appearances at churches and prisons, and even at his recent hugely anticipated and nationally televised introductory news conference for the New York Jets, Tebow is far from a firebrand evangelical.
With unflappable optimism and politeness, using his gift for artfully preaching without sounding preachy, Tebow mostly discusses his life story. He is a child of Southern Baptist missionaries in the Philippines who prayed for a son to become a preacher, named for Timothy in the Bible. Football, Tebow says, is his platform for greater good. He talks about the charitable works of his family and his own foundation. And he repeatedly invokes Jesus Christ's name and the good that comes from committing to a life lived by his creed.
He has more followers than most preachers, and evokes more passion than most politicians. But, unlike so many of them, Tebow shows little interest in using his pulpit to take controversial stances.
"Tebow is part of a movement of 'cosmopolitan Christians,' " said D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College and the author of Faith in the Halls of Power, a book about American evangelicals. "They're more media savvy than their forebears and they understand the importance of building bridges. They speak more about what they're for than what they're against. It speaks for that segment of the evangelical community that wants to spend energy on things for the common good rather than be a lightning rod."
That appears to be Tebow's approach.
"My belief is that his goal is to indeed be inclusive and not divisive," Nathan Whitaker, who was a co-author of Tebow's book, Through My Eyes, wrote in an email. He declined to discuss Tebow's beliefs more specifically.
After being traded from the Denver Broncos, and nearly being traded to his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars, Tebow spent most of his introductory news conference at Jets headquarters in Florham Park, N.J., discussing his perceived role on the team.
The subject of faith -- and any mention of Jesus -- did not arise until the 16th question. It seemed strange, given all of the curiosity and debate over Tebow's methods of on-field proselytizing -- from biblical verses on his cheeks; to his kneeling in prayer after touchdowns (since christened as a verb: Tebowing); to his habit of opening postgame news conferences by thanking "first and foremost, my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ."
Asked to articulate his religious beliefs, he demurred, slightly.
"We're at a press conference for a football team, so it's not exactly the platform to get up here and share everything you believe," said Tebow, who attended a Southern Baptist church with his family in Jacksonville, Fla. "But I have no problem, ever, sharing what I believe. I'm a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and that is first and foremost the most important thing in my life. For me it's about having a relationship with Christ. And that's pretty much it. That's the basis of what I believe in."
In his book, Tebow wrote that he was 6 when, he said, "I knew I was ready to accept Jesus into my heart." That afternoon, he wrote, the family celebrated the event by going to EPCOT at Disney World.
Despite his age at the time, Tebow has specific memories of the awakening: of being in bed, scared he would go to hell if something happened the next day.
"So I got down on my knees right there on the couch and I prayed with my mom," he told a Georgia church congregation in 2010. "And I asked Jesus to come into my heart. And right there in that instant, I knew that I had just went from darkness to light. And I knew that my eternity was sealed in heaven, by putting my trust in Jesus Christ."
It remains the center of his message: Put Jesus "in your heart."
"God has a special plan for each person," Tebow told a congregation two years ago. "He has a special plan for your life. God has a poem written out for you and written out for me. And it's our job, and it should be our goal, to follow that poem, and follow God's plan for our life, because regardless of whether you think it or not, that's the best way to live."
He speaks often of the "dash" on a tombstone, between the year of birth and the year of death, and making that dash mean something significant. He frequently tells the story of a woman who approached him and said he must consider his life a success, given all his football accomplishments. Tebow said yes, but it had nothing to do with winning national championships, the Heisman Trophy, or being famous. It has everything to do with his relationship with Jesus Christ, he says.
"That's why I can stand in front of you today and say my life is a success," Tebow told prisoners at Lake City Correctional Facility in Florida while still in college. "Because I know who holds my future. And I know where I'm spending eternity."
He prayed with inmates and paused often for them to repeat the words.
"Dear Jesus," he said, "I know that I am a sinner, and I believe that you died on the cross for me. I put my trust in you and ask you to come into my heart, and forgive me my sins. Thank you for forgiving me and giving me a home in heaven. Thank you. And I will come and live with you someday. In Jesus' name, amen."
At the Jets' press conference, he used a question about his charity work to promote his Tim Tebow Foundation, which is aimed at a range of causes from orphanages to "Timmy's Playrooms" at hospitals.
"Because ultimately I know that's more important than anything I do on the football field, is the ability to brighten a kid's day or the ability to make someone smile," Tebow said.
In 2009, before his senior season, Tebow was asked at a football media event whether he was "saving" himself for marriage. He smiled and answered yes, and joked that the reporters seemed more embarrassed than he did. Recalling the encounter, Tebow wrote in his book, "I didn't understand -- and still don't -- why it was something that needed to be asked. Since when does anybody else get asked that?"
But he seemed pleased that the subject was raised. "I realized that young women and men heard my answer and would continue to hear it going forward," Tebow wrote. "As a result, there was the chance that they might find encouragement in my words and lifestyle to do the same and to wait until they were married to engage in sexual activity."