In India, one can more often than not identify another’s religion by his or her dress. Sikh males sport turbans, well-kept beards and silver bracelets. Muslim women wear head coverings for varying degrees of modesty, depending on local traditions of orthodoxy, from simple scarves to full-body burqas with only a slit to see through. Hindus, male and female, will often wear makeup on the forehead to identify their sect. Certain members of the Jain religion and some Hindu hermits of the sadhu sect wear nothing at all.
In North American Jewish communities, Hassidic males identify their degree of orthodoxy by the manner in which they manage their haircut and beard and by the type of hat they wear. Amish communities wear distinctive handmade clothing. Black Muslim members of the Nation of Islam can be identified by their bow ties for men or their sashes for women.
Public displays of piety are more common than we might think. Consider the crucifix or Star of David necklace, the singing of “God Bless America” at the seventh-inning stretch of a professional baseball game, our currency’s “In God We Trust” or the Pledge of Allegiance words “one nation under God,” added in the 1950s.
Yet the media are having a field day with Tim Tebow’s public displays of piety.
The Denver Broncos’ rookie quarterback has made national news with his amazing, last-minute football miracles; winning six games in a row during the regular season after the team got off to a terrible start; and beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime in the Broncos’ first playoff win since 2005. Denver’s loss to the heavily favored New England Patriots will only dim “Tebowmania” for a while.
Tebow’s public displays of piety have been of major interest to the media since his days as a successful football player at the University of Florida. Throughout games, especially after a touchdown, he unashamedly kneels on one knee, places his forehead on his fist and thanks Jesus. At press conferences, he is quite natural and sincere about the role of faith in his life. He doesn’t appear to be a phony, which is driving the mass media wild with speculation, parody and criticism.
The cynical use Tebowmania to recite a litany of the all-too-many religious hypocrites whose public displays of piety do not match their immoral and/or criminal behavior, as if the pundits are just waiting for this young man to stumble and fall.
In an increasingly secular North America, Tebow’s public displays of piety are perceived as an irritant by some and offensive to others. Reminiscent of the French controversy banning the Muslim hijab for girls in public schools, a secular majority wants religious minorities to keep their religion to themselves.
When was the last time we heard a word in the mass media about the faith communities’ response to Hurricane Katrina? Communities of faith have donated millions of dollars and volunteer hours to aid the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast over the past six years. Such compassionate service continues in Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake. It happens in North America’s urban core each and every day, where churches, synagogues and mosques feed, house and clothe the poor.
We might find a human-interest story every now and then, the usual holiday articles around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but no headlines, no in-depth analyses. We won’t find “Saturday Night Live” parodies of volunteers digging houses out of muck on YouTube.
Are such public displays of piety invisible to the editors of our society’s media outlets?
But let a young football player bend to his knee in prayer and few can talk about anything else.
Religious identification by dress, custom, posture or slogan is superficial, of course. In the end, the only real way we identify our core beliefs is by how we live our lives, which suggests that how we judge celebrity athletes’ faith may say a lot more about us than it does about them.
The Rev. Mark S. Bollwinkel is senior pastor of Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, visit www.laumc.org.