Virtue has a price: $99.95 on the New England Patriots’ Pro Shop website, where we can order Tim Tebow jerseys to take a stand against excessive self-esteem.
Team Tebow isn’t so much about the Christian faith anymore. There’s a “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page, signifying that a Tebow shirt is no longer synonymous with a fish sticker on the back of one’s car. Nor is he a symbol of athletic excellence; for that, you’ll want Jersey No. 12, not No. 5. What Tebow represents is the virtue that St. Augustine said was the foundation of all others: humility, which perished unnoticed the week that Facebook was launched.
The newest Patriot will be a tough sell in these parts, not just because we already have a quarterback, but because Tebow is seen as ostentatiously reverent. This clashes with New England’s core values, as we are proudly secular and famously non-demonstrative. But we need Tebow for the same reason we need the Catholic Church: because both persist in that creaky old act of submission, kneeling.
It’s a position that has fallen out of favor, and not because the baby boomers’ knees ache. Kneeling is an act of humility that’s not permitted in the state religion, the Church of Self-Esteem. A famous painting, “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” shows George Washington kneeling by his horse. And it isn’t just the mode of transportation that makes it impossible to imagine our military leaders today following his example. It’s a form of humility that most Americans cannot bear, even when our daily doses of Joint Juice permit it.
Nor do we practice bowing — the upright version of kneeling — unless we hail from other lands. At a high-school graduation in Hopkinton a week ago, I watched several Chinese exchange students bow slightly before accepting their diplomas. Not the Americans, the red-white-and-blue-bloods, who strutted across the stage with rigid backs, as if afraid a lowering of the head or bending of the back would erase their standing as descendants of Homo erectus.
As the exchange students showed on the stage, gestures of humility are not solely the purview of the religious. We can’t blame a dearth of faith on our refusal to perform physical acts of humility. The novelist Ayn Rand was fervently atheist, yet even she understood the impulse behind Tebowing. “One day, you’ll see on a piece of paper before you a building that will make you want to kneel,” the architect Henry Cameron told Howard Roark in Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”
What makes Americans want to kneel today? Nothing, apparently. We have come to associate kneeling with unsavory practices, like weeding or execution; instinctively we shun anything that makes us feel diminished and puny. Posture is important for our spines, the yogis say, and we should all walk as though we have books on our heads. Which is fine for musculoskeletal health, but not so great for the intangible good we call character.
“There’s something in humility which, strangely enough, exalts the heart, and something in pride which debases it,” Augustine wrote in “The City of God,” ripping the Patriots much more nicely than Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs did earlier this year when he called them “arrogant” expletive-deleteds.
For Tebow fans, the problem now is that overexposure has diminished the value of his signature stance. To demonstrate humility and gratitude now, it’s better that he just walk off the field, because any dip of the knee will be seen as showboating. Virtue can’t exist when it’s self-conscious.
But when it was fresh and new, “Tebowing” was much so much better than “Bradying” — sitting, head down on the field, marinating in woe like Tom Brady did after throwing an interception in the 2012 Super Bowl. A lowered head is not always a bow, and a bent knee isn’t always a prayer; historians say George Washington never actually prayed on his knees. Still, amid the hollow triumph of self-esteem over good-hearted humility, you have to love Tim Tebow for resisting. If we’re not wearing No. 5 jerseys, it’s only because of the cost; frugality, too, is a virtue.
Jennifer Graham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.