A version of this column appeared originally in USA TODAY.
Why should religious leaders, of all people, turn their fire on celebrities who use their popularity for public proclamations of the almighty’s power? In an age when media icons flaunt every sort of indulgence and depravity, prominent members of clergy should find more appropriate targets to scold than athletic achievers like football's Tim Tebow, basketball's Jeremy Lin or baseball's Josh Hamilton, who choose to flaunt their devout Christian commitment.
Widespread discomfort toward well-publicized professions of faith highlights a significant rift in outlook — not just between believers and skeptics, but between religious people who want to limit theological affirmations to church or synagogue settings and those who announce their ardent belief at every opportunity.
The newly elected leader of the important Reform movement in Judaism clearly shares the instinct to wince at the insertion of too many religious gestures in today's pop culture. "God-sentences do not flow trippingly off Jewish lips," writes Rabbi Rick Jacobs in his denominational magazine Reform Judaism. He goes on to suggest "a deep reason for our unease. The God-talk we hear most is hardly worth emulating. Watching athletes pointing to the heavens to acknowledge their savior after scoring a touchdown, you'd think God actually cared about which team won. While I hope God's presence can be felt in all places, including football stadiums, I find it offensive to reduce the almighty to a football mascot in the sky."
These indignant comments take unmistakable aim at religious sports stars such as Tebow, who hopes to add many Jewish admirers to his adoring fan base when he takes the field for his new team, the New York Jets. Of course, Tebow has repeatedly denied he believes that God bothers to arrange miraculous victories for favored athletes.
When Christian sports figures point toward the clouds or drop to their knees in prayer, they merely express gratitude for the Lord's grace and generosity in allowing them to perform at the peak of their abilities. Is this impulse so different from the instinct of many religious Jews — including members of Rabbi Jacobs' own progressive Reform denomination in Judaism — to recite the She'cheyanu prayer to observe life's milestones, like watching the graduation of a beloved child, or leaving the hospital after serious illness? We say, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season." Our Christian friends express much the same sentiments, though sometimes with gestures rather than words, and without the Hebrew formulation.