It seems that last weekend I found myself involved in something like a play or perhaps more accurately a pageant. It appeared to present itself in three acts.
Act one: While watching a football game at a friend’s home, there emerged a discussion about the religious side of Denver’s starting quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has of late pulled the Broncos to an 8-5 position atop the AFC West. Tebow is a devout evangelical Christian who is not bashful about praying on the playing field. His winning ways and his public demonstrations of his faith have generated a national conversation about the role of faith in public, and ministers and rabbis tend to be on his side. Even the board chairman of the Colorado Muslim Society counts himself as a Tebow fan, telling FOX News, “I know I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but I admire somebody who thanks God for everything that he gave him.”
Though I rarely find myself in a debate over separation of church and football, I cited a successful pro golfer who is not only prone to thanking the Lord after a big win, but is also one of several golfers who appears in a TV commercial that shows the little markings the golfers make on their golf balls to ID them. In the ad, we see this golfer marks his with a small Magic Marker cross.
My feeling about professional athletes is that way before there is a concern about the role of faith in winning for-profit sports competition there is a question of taste. But am I really just looking to keep these athletes and players from some form of expression that is rightfully theirs? We all happily ingest the flood of logos and product placements in sports TV coverage. Why would I become agitated about an occasional nod to faith, and then never balk about having to read the word “Gatorade” a thousand times during a football game?
Act two: The annual Santa Monica Nativity Scenes display has been set up once again at Palisades Park. The interdenominational display of scenes began in 1954 and features life size figures depicting events surrounding Christ’s birth. It has found a home at one of the most picturesque spots in our city. It is not as troubling, perhaps, as the fact that the display positions itself in a high traffic public area where thousands are getting their first taste of our city. While the holiday decorations on the Promenade make a solid effort to avoid any taint of specific religions, there’s no getting around the message at Palisades Park: Jesus is Lord, and his story gets first position at the nexus of tourism and trade in Santa Monica.
Act three: A TLC reality show about Muslims in America, “All American Muslim,” has come under fire and major advertiser Lowe’s Hardware has pulled its support of the series. I’ve never seen the show, but I can tell you I much prefer the reality TV industry telling that kind of story rather than the crass effluvia and self-absorbed drivel it usually peddles. Almost immediately after pulling the ads from the Muslim series there were calls from “celebrities,” to instigate a boycott of Lowes, with some calling them “bigots.” A great deal of the furor, if we agree to call it that, was expressed on websites and via Twitter. An early statement from Lowe’s included this explanation: “While we continue to advertise on various cable networks, including TLC, there are certain programs that do not meet Lowe’s advertising guidelines…” Well, I just hope that in viewing some Lowe’s ads in the next few weeks I don’t see them supporting something like a movie rife with gun violence or exploitation of women or comical drug use or even the hilarity that ensues when a senior citizen passes gas.
Some people are irritated by the use of Santa Claus in commerce because he takes your thoughts to Christmas and that’s a religious holiday and so having Santa Claus mixed-up in commerce constitutes bumping Christianity to the front of the line, especially at this time of year. As a former department store Santa Claus (the Christmas after I graduated from college), I can tell you for a fact that Santa himself gets nudged by parents who want the jolly old elf to deliver religious messages to their children. One father insisted that his son tell Santa he wanted a Bible for Christmas. To borrow from the Wayans Brothers, “Santa don’t play that.” Or at least, he didn’t when I was his representative back then.
We are never going to completely peel-off religion from commerce, if only because religion uses commerce (Christian Broadcasting/major movies based on Jewish history). But we might help ourselves by recognizing the important difference between specific religions and having faith. I’m not offended if a small boy in a family film prays for the life of his wounded dog. But if he specifically asks for help from Jesus, that’s another thing. If athletes want to refer to having faith in their lives, then that seems preferable to a more specific reference to the religion and icons through which that faith is expressed. Just as I might appear on a talk show and say, “I enjoy orange juice” rather than touting “Minute Maid Orange Juice.” I think a similar restraint could apply to public displays at this time of year that are specifically Christian. Have your displays, but find a location that doesn’t imply that they represent everyone in the community. And as far as Lowe’s is concerned, their cowardice only communicates that they don’t have any faith… in our ability to learn and grow as a nation.