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Pigskin and piety: Tim Tebow comes to town

What is it about prayerful QB that moves people so much, pro and con?

Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s displays of faith have drawn sharp focus and intense reaction.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s displays of faith have drawn sharp focus and intense reaction.

Curt Schilling stood at the back of the mound and prayed, pressing his cross pendant to his lips.

David Ortiz points to the heavens each time he blasts a home run.

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Football players hold hands in prayer circles and soccer players make the sign of the cross.

But quarterback Tim Tebow, with his kneeling prayer after each touchdown and other overt displays of faith, has captured the imagination of the nation - and stirred some controversy - in a way that none of the others have.

Tebow’s knack for leading last-minute victories, his success despite widespread doubt about his viability as a National Football League quarterback, his clean-cut image (a teetotaler! a virgin!) in a world where millionaire athletes routinely succumb to temptation - all this has generated a wave of popularity of biblical proportions.

But Tebow’s public expressions of faith rub some others the wrong way. Some respect his faith but simply do not like the in-your-face display. Others, remembering prominent evangelical Christians who have been disgraced by scandal, wonder whether Tebow’s public religiosity is as sincere and unscripted as it appears to be.

In New England, where the evangelical movement is relatively weak and mainline faiths are rooted in a tradition of modesty, religious leaders say they are not surprised that many feel discomfort about the Denver star, who sings hymns during warm-ups and expresses gratitude to Jesus at the beginning of each postgame interview.

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“There’s something a little off-putting in it for some of us in our culture; in the Northeast we are not an emotionally showy people,’’ said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South Church in Boston, which is affiliated with the mainline Protestant United Church of Christ.

Tebow, whose Denver Broncos take on the New England Patriots tonight, has led a squad of upstarts into the second round of the playoffs in the country’s most-watched professional team sport - a sport with a history and lore peppered with religious references: Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, Touchdown Jesus.

The furor - and the controversy - grew to fever pitch after the Broncos eliminated the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, led by Tebow’s 316 passing yards (at a rate of 31.6 yards per catch), numbers in which some saw an uncanny connection to the Bible verse that encapsulates Christian belief, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’’ The conclusion among Tebow’s legion of followers: God is a Denver Broncos fan.

The suggestion that God plays favorites has also prompted cautious commentary.

“When anybody claims that God is on their side because they believe a certain way or live a particular way, it implies that God is not on the side of their adversary,’’ said the Rev. Robert W. Brown, associate minister at Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord. “To claim that ‘God’s favor is on me’ is a wonderful claim, unless that excludes the possibility that God’s favor is also on you.’’

To be clear, Tebow does not suggest that God is on his side. But neither does he publicly object to the sale of renditions of his jersey with a picture of Jesus on the back. Nor does he ask his followers to stop using his name as a verb that means “to kneel and pray’’ - an honor that has eluded every other devout Christian in the religion’s 2,000-year history.

Even religious leaders in the Boston area who choose to be less conspicuous in their devotion acknowledge Tebow’s appeal. “I don’t like to wear my religion on my sleeve, but I honestly and totally support what he’s doing,’’ said William Suhaib Webb, imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

“I think his methods are open for criticism but as a universal message it is positive,’’ he said. “In an age of unabated narcissism it is hard to find people that are religious, especially a young, talented, successful American male standing up for some kind of religion.’’

Taylor, of Old South Church, offered a similar sentiment.

“To be fair to Tebow, it’s my understanding that he is an upstanding, good, young, moral man,’’ she said. But, she added, “The New Testament does caution a secrecy of faith.’’

For an example, see Matthew 6:6-8: “But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.’’

Evangelical leaders in the area say they are aware of the uneasy reaction in some quarters to Tebow’s overt expression of faith as they welcome his popularity.

“People are uncomfortable and yet intrigued by strong religious faith, because it forces us to think about a part of life that we are not always comfortable with,’’ said the Rev. Bryan Wilkerson, senior pastor at Grace Chapel, an evangelical megachurch in Lexington.

But Wilkerson spoke for many commentators when he added: “Most players call attention to themselves when they score a touchdown - dancing, spiking the ball over the goal post, etc. Tebow chooses to call attention to God.’’

Sean McDonough, a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary in Hamilton, pointed to another potential pitfall of repeated public displays of piety.

“You run the risk of making it sound perfunctory,’’ he said; though by all indications, McDonough said, Tebow appears to be living the life he espouses.

And there are people, he said, who take pleasure in witnessing the fall of those who set such a high bar of righteousness for themselves.

When scandals broke involving prominent evangelical preachers like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, McDonough said, “People would say to me ‘Hey, I see another one of your boys has gone down today.’ ’’

Because of the association of many evangelical Christian groups with the political right - and because of his participation in an antiabortion advertisement in 2010 - Tebow is part of the political wars.

Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have associated their campaigns in the Republican presidential primary with Tebow’s penchant for comeback victories. It has not helped: Bachmann suspended her campaign and Perry is far behind the leaders.

Tebow, on the other hand, is winning, despite his wobbly spiral and widespread disapproval of his passing skills among football cognoscenti.

“People are responding to his joy,’’ said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “Between Heaven and Mirth, a book on spirituality. “If he were praying and losing I don’t think people would care. When the losing quarterback kneels in the end zone, no one sees it.’’

Or they disapprove of it. Red Sox fans will recall that star slugger Adrian Gonzalez, summarizing the team’s historical late-season collapse, said that “God didn’t have it in the cards for us’’ to advance to the playoffs.

Some questioned why he would ascribe the team’s failure to a heavenly plan rather than, say, a trio of starting pitchers who consumed beer and chicken in the clubhouse during games.

So the Tebow talk proliferates in popular culture, drawing the attention of the country - at least for a few days - away from more pressing debates. And in that lies perhaps the most attractive aspect of Tebowmania.

“It’s easier to think about this than it is to comment on the plight of the urban poor or climate change or war,’’ Taylor said. “The world weighs upon us. It’s complicated and it’s scary and it’s sad and it’s tragic. I recognize that we need lesser things to distract us.’’

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.

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