How Tim Tebow's Evangelism Will Play in New York

New York City isn't without religion, but it's not exactly an evangelical hotbed.

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My Thursday blog post about the odd cultural juxtaposition of Tim Tebow taking the New York City stage in Jets green and white drew at least one odd response, on the op-ed page of the New York Post.

“Pundits couldn’t contain themselves over the news that quarterback Tim Tebow is joining the Jets--and I don’t mean sportswriters worried about Mark Sanchez’s confidence. Many just don’t think Tebow’s evangelical religiosity is the right fit for Sin City,” religion writer Naomi Schaefer Riley writes. She quotes a couple of humorous online comments and my post, concluding, “They don’t know the real Big Apple.” She goes on to cite various New York religious leaders to the effect that the city is practically a hotbed of Tebow-ian religiosity.

If her argument is that New York City is not a religious void, that there are, in fact, churches there, well … yes. Obviously. I would think it not worth mentioning that a city of more than 8 million has a diverse and thriving spiritual life. A search of NYC.com, for example, turns up nearly 6,500 listings for churches (though at least one appears to be a bakery). The city has has a bunch of "megachurches." Why there’s even talk of putting a Muslim community center downtown, a few blocks from ground zero.

[Check out political cartoons about the 'ground zero mosque' controversy.]

So yes, there is religion in New York City. But I never argued that there wasn’t. What I said is that the city is not “known … for its evangelical fervor.” The city that never sleeps certainly has an abundance of religion, but religiosity is not among the city’s defining characteristics.

And more specifically, Tebow’s religion is of an extroverted, evangelical Protestant style that is not reflected either in the Big Apple or in the Northeast, the region of which it is the cultural capital. (Many, myself included, would argue that New York is the cultural capital of more than the Northeast, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Rather it is religious style far more at home in the South.

I would ordinarily assume saying neither New York City nor the Northeast is fervently religious or evangelical would be axiomatic, but let me throw some supporting evidence on it. A January 2009 Gallup poll found New York to be the 11th least religious state in the union (nine of the 10 most religious states were Southern); a 2007 Pew survey of religious attitudes in the United States found that the “South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches,” and that the Northeast has “the fewest number of people affiliated with evangelical Protestant churches.” A 2010 Faith Communities Today study found that the single most important factor in congregational growth is whether it is located in the South. “Even when controlling for all other growth related variables, being located in the South is very advantageous when it comes to growth,” the report found.

[Read Susan Milligan: God Has Better Things to Do Than to Worry About Tim Tebow]

None of this is to say that Tebow is going to be persecuted for his faith. It’s just to that his religious style does not reflect New York City’s broadly. Given that it does reflect that of a significant portion of his large and enthusiastic following, there’s a great potential for him to become a Culture War flashpoint if/when he struggles as a professional football player.

One thing Riley got right was that the city loves a winner. If Tebow leads the Jets to (or contributes to their reaching) the NFL promised land, there’s no question that fans will happily kneel in the pose he has made famous. But it’ll be an act of secular celebration, not religious devotion: We’ll be Tebowing, not praying.

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