Why Liberals Shouldn't Dis Tim Tebow (or Jesus)

It took the final, climactic weekend of Tebow-mania to draw my attention to the weeks-old Saturday Night Live skit below. The skit ridicules Tim Tebow and/or Jesus, depending on how you interpret it. Parts of it made me laugh, but I still think this kind of stuff probably hurts the cause of the secular liberals who typically create it. My two reasons for believing this can be found below the video player.

1) Prominent among the political adversaries of secular liberals are religious conservatives, the more extreme of whom consider themselves to be at war with the prevailing culture. They may homeschool their kids (though not all homeschoolers share this attitude) or in other ways try to wall themselves off from this culture. When secular liberals who shape the culture fulfill the religious conservatives' stereotype of them as threatening--by, say, seeming to ridicule Jesus, or seeming to ridicule Tebow's faith--conservatives will be more inclined to stay within their walls, avoiding engagement with the secular world. So they'll find it easier to reject the entire liberal agenda, ranging from gay rights to uncensored science education in the public schools. (Don't get me started on the damage that I fear Richard Dawkins is doing to science education in the heartland by embodying a false equation between Darwinism and a militant, contemptuous atheism.) In short, when liberals are seen as ridiculing Christianity, they're energizing their adversaries and making it harder to turn adversaries into allies, or at least neutral parties, on particular issues.

2) This American tension between secular culture and religious conservatism has a counterpart on the global stage. There some fundamentalists--most famously some Muslim fundamentalists, but also some Jewish and Christian fundamentalists--are evincing enough discontent with the modern world (and sometimes with each other) that the feared "clash of civilizations" is a not-quite-entirely-crazy scenario. American liberals are divided on whether this should make them tread delicately on Muslim sensibilities, but many (including me) think that the answer is yes; that it's ill-advised, for example, to publish cartoons of Muhammad with the aim of provoking a reaction that you can then highmindedly condemn as unenlightened. And if we're going to take that position on insulting Muslims, consistency would seem to dictate that we take the same position toward adherents of other faiths. So don't expect to find me cheering for the play The Book of Mormon--even if I go see it and find it entertaining!

I should admit to a factor in my thinking that won't carry weight with other people: My parents, who brought me up southern Baptist, also brought me up to respect other people's religious beliefs. The southern Baptist part didn't stick, but the other part continues to make sense to me independent of the tactical considerations above. Explaining why would call for a whole 'nother post.

[Pre-emptive postscript: I hope it's obvious that I'm not advocating censorship. If you think I'm raising First Amendment issues, please think again.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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