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Haters Gonna Hate: Tebow & Sub-Culture Identity Theory

This past Sunday Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to an improbable playoff victory after leading them through and improbable regular season. All the while Tebow vocally attributed his success to his evangelical Christian faith which drew him equally vocal supporters and critics. In this post Nathan Palmer uses sub-culture identity theory to suggest that both the hate and the love Tebow garners reaffirms and strengthens his faith and that of his fellow evangelical Christians.

Tim Tebow

Osama Bin Laden didn’t stand a chance. When Denver Bronco’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught Tim Tebow’s pass on the first play of overtime in NFL playoff history for the game winning touchdown, Twitter exploded with over 9,000 tweets per second; a mark that well surpassed the previous Twitter traffic record generated by the death of Bin Laden.

But don’t be mistaken, the flood of tweets were not all showering Tebow with love. To some Tim Tebow is a legend on the field and a hero off it. To others he is self-righteous, pompous, and pretentious. Love him or hate him, right now, it’s likely you are talking about him.

The Hoopla Surrounding Tebow

In case you’ve been saying to yourself, “who is this Tebow guy everyone keeps talking about,” the last few weeks, let me fill you in. Tim Tebow is best known for winning multiple NCAA national championships with the Florida Gators, but despite his success his quarterbacking style was not expected to translate well in the NFL. Despite the numerous and vocal critics of his ability to play QB at the professional level, Tebow was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos in 2010. This year Tebow took the starting QB position away from Kyle Orton (the Broncos record was 1–4 with Orton) and led them on an unlikely win streak and into the playoffs. The Broncos were huge underdogs in the game they won Sunday versus Pittsburg (who had the number one rated defense in the NFL). You can say a lot about Tebow, but you have to acknowledge that he’s a winner.

But it’s not his play on the field that makes Tebow such a lightening rod. Tebow is an evangelical Christian who starts and ends most of his interactions with the press by giving thanks to God. Tebow wears his faith on his sleeve or I should say on his face (Tebow writes bible versus on his eye-black). Tebow kneels in prayer so often before, during, and after games that it has caught fire as an internet meme; the move is referred to now as “Tebowing”. To some Tebow lays it on pretty thick and he has been parodied widely; famously so on this Saturday Night Live sketch:

The wave of Tebow criticism has been met by an equally vocal wave of support. Tebow’s fans believe that he is being unfairly persecuted for his faith. From a sociological perspective this is a prime scenario for Tebow and his fellow evangelical adherents to actually have their faith strengthened rather than weakened. So how does criticism and hostility promote faith? The answer is by clearly defining social boundaries.

There is an important aspect of the “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to religion. It helps create sub-cultures. Sociologist Christian Smith (1998) wrote a book called “Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving”. In the book, Smith talks about how evangelicals use their distinctiveness as a group to stay strong. It’s called the “subculture identity theory”. Evangelicals keep a strong sub-culture by constantly reminding themselves that they are different than the rest of the secular world. They engage the secular world but only to try and save souls, in doing so they come into contact with non-evangelicals who are very different than them, which reaffirms what they’ve always been taught- they are different, they are special, and they destined for a better place.

Simply put: when it’s “us vs. them” those who are “with us” is clearly defined and the social bonds between this in-group are strengthened. If being an evangelical Christian is defined as standing apart from the larger secular world, then criticizing evangelicals for their outward displays of faith will only reaffirm that faith.

So as they say, haters gonna hate, but in doing so they will probably only be strengthening the support for Tebow and his faith as an evangelical Christian.

Additional reporting from Chris Garneau

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you feel the criticism of Tim Tebow has been fair or unfair, why?
  2. Where else in our society do we see sub-cultures being strengthened by an “us vs. them” mentality?
  3. Christian Smith’s book was written 14 years ago, do you think his analysis of evangelical Christians is still correct today? How has the public perception of evangelicals changed over this time period?
  4. Use Smith’s sub-culture identity theory to evaluate the Saturday Night Live video. How will evangelical Christians and Tebow supporters most likely react to this clip according to the theory?