Farewell, ‘Touchdown Jesus’

It may seem like a long time ago, but when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, there was sense that evangelical Christianity had become a political and cultural force that was reshaping the country.

Evangelicals, you may remember, were credited with keeping Bush in office, despite the poor start to the war in Iraq.

I talked to an evangelical pastor in Putnam County who told me that evangelical culture out there in the Heartland was a mysterious and potent force, impossible for a New Yorker to understand or relate to.

So I spent a week in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, hanging out at four evangelical churches and asking dozens — hundreds? — of evangelicals what politically correct New Yawkers might want to know about them.

One of the churches I visited was Solid Rock Church, a large, vibrant, ministry-rich and highly diverse Pentecostal church in Monroe, Ohio. The place was regionally famous because a few months before, it had commissioned an artist to build a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in front of the church.

The statue, built right beside I-75, was quite controversial.

It showed Jesus from the waist up, rising out of the ground, with his arms outstretched toward the heavens.

It was officially called “King of Kings.” But people in the region referred to it as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Some considered it garish. In fact, the pastor of another evangelical church I visited cringed when I brought it up. He was afraid that reporters like me would be drawn to the area because of the statue and would make fun of Christians as a result (I don’t believe I did so).

I can tell you this: When driving along I-75 at night, the statue could give you a chill.

That’s me in front of the statue. From what I remember, there was a cold, December wind blowing right into my face.

When my article ran in the paper, everyone asked me about the statue. Why did they build it? What did it look like up close? What did the neighbors say?

I mention this now because, last night, “King of Kings” burned. To a crisp.

Apparently, the statue, made of fiber glass and foam, was struck by lightning during a storm. The entire thing went up in flames.

As pictures from the Cincinnati Enquirer show, all that’s left is some kind of wire frame. An accompanying video shows clumps of charred statue scattered across the grounds. An adjacent amphitheater was also damaged.

According the paper’s website: “Authorities on Tuesday were urging motorists to resist the temptation to stop on Interstate 75 and snap photos, fearing that drivers pulling on and off the berm could cause crashes…The Ohio State Highway Patrol is issuing warnings to those who stop — and will soon start writing citations, a dispatcher for the patrol’s Lebanon post said.”

I’m sure that the people of West Chester, Ohio, are going to need some time to get used to the great statue not being there. You also have to figure that some jokes are being told today about the statue’s fate and that some may even find meaning of some sort in its demise.

The members of Solid Rock Church were real nice to me. I attended a meeting about their intense prison ministry and visited their elegant home for young, single mothers.

So I can’t help feeling kind of sad.

The Dayton Daily News reports that Solid Rock has gotten calls of support from around the world and that work will begin this summer to rebuild the statue.

Fire photo by Michael Ryan

6 Catholics, 3 Jews, 0 Protestants

We’ll probably hear a lot over the coming weeks about the U.S. Supreme Court becoming Protestant-less for the first time ever.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Obama’s nominee to replace John Paul Stevens, is Jewish. If she gets confirmed, the court will have six Catholic justices and three Jewish justices (although not all are religiously observant).

How important is it that the court won’t have a Protestant justice?

I guess it’s one of those “turning the page” moments, a solid reminder of the long, slow demise of mainline Protestant numbers and influence in this country.

Mainliners used to run the show, basically, dominating many American institutions. As we all know (at least those of us who follow this stuff), this hasn’t been the case for quite some time.

One might wonder if and when evangelical Christians — who make up at least a quarter of Americans — might replace mainliners on the top bench.

A CNN report notes:

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Evangelical Protestant colleges, meanwhile — including Regent University and Liberty University, founded by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell respectively — have had law schools only since the 1980s.

And law schools with Protestant roots, like Harvard and Yale, shed their religious identities a long time ago, part of the broader fading of a distinct mainline Protestant identity in the U.S..

Some legal and religious scholars say the dearth of qualified evangelical candidates for the Supreme Court came into sharp relief in 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the high court.

An evangelical Christian whom the White House promoted strenuously among evangelicals, Miers had her nomination brought down largely by conservatives — nonevangelicals, mostly — who said she was not qualified for the position.

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I’m not sure if there have been “evangelical” justices in the past.

Several websites I found that compiled the religions of past justices list about a dozen who were believed to be only “Protestant.” Some of them could have been evangelicals, at least in terms of belief and practice.

It would surprise no one if Obama picked a mainline Protestant for the court. But you have to figure that it will be a Republic president who chooses the next evangelical justice.

And what about an atheist justice, an outright nonbeliever?

He or she would have to be chosen, one would think, by a Democratic president with really high poll numbers.

(AP Photo/Harvard University News Office, Stephanie Mitchell)

Tim Tebow, devout QB, picked by the right team in the right state

Nobody brought this up on ESPN last night, but…

It’s fitting that college superstar quarterback Tim Tebow was drafted last night by the Denver Broncos.

Tebow is a devout evangelical Christian (you remember his pro-life commercial with mom during the Super Bowl) and Colorado is a national center of evangelical megachurches and evangelical organizations.

The millions of football analysts who are “breaking down” the Broncos’ selection of Tebow this morning are probably unaware of this unusual fit. But you can bet that Tebow, his family and all those evangelicals in Colorado are smiling.

Many are thanking God for bringing a Christian QB to Colorado.

Tebow’s father, Bob, is a leading missionary/evangelist in the Philippines, where the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association has been aiming to preach the Gospel in every village since 1985. And it’s a family Affair. Bob’s wife, Pam, and their five children are all deeply involved in the work.

That includes the youngest, known as Timmy.

The family’s website includes this:

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Although football is important to Tim, his priorities that precede football are faith, family, and academics. A verse from the Bible that he often quotes is Philippians 4:13, which credits the true source of his strength, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Tim loves football but knows that his career will end someday. His relationship with Jesus Christ, however, will never end.

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Timmy doesn’t have a contract yet but he does have his own foundation. Its mission is this: “The Foundation will utilize the public platform that God has given to Tim Tebow–through media, publishing, speaking engagements, special events, and mission trips—to inspire friends and supporters to work with the Foundation as a team in helping to make a difference.”

He should be right at home in Colorado, which is home to some of the nation’s most influential megachurches, including New Life Church in Colorado Springs (yes, that’s where Ted Haggard used to be pastor).

Dozens of evangelical groups have also put down roots in Colorado Springs, including Focus on the Family.

How will all those crazy Bronco fans feel about Tebow’s regular professions of faith? Sports fandom being what it is, they’ll be fine with it if Tebow plays like John Elway and the Broncos win. They’ll run out of patience fast if Tebow can’t adapt to the pro game (as many analysts expect) and the Broncos lose.

It will also be mighty interesting to see how Tebow — praised in college for tremendous leadership skills — will be received in an NFL lockerroom.

Being a big football fan myself who has read many books by former players, I have no doubt that Tebow will be a fine leader for the many Christians who now populate NFL teams. But the question is how he will relate to the many more worldly players who we read about quite often these days.

Having seen Tebow run over linebackers in college, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything he does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am a rabid Oakland Raiders fan. The Raiders stink, but have a long, heated rivalry with the Denver Broncos.

Tim Tebow is easy to like. But I won’t be rooting for him.

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack