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.
If athletic contests count as an inappropriate place for reflections on godly power, then Jews might find it difficult to explain our traditional "bathroom blessing" (Asher Yatzar), recited for centuries to celebrate the normal functioning of our marvelous bodies. If religious Jews thank God each time he enables us to relieve ourselves, it's hardly outrageous that religious Christians should express their gratitude for hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown before 60,000 screaming fans.
Meanwhile, if critics of public religious displays find it offensive whenever athletes seek to "give God the glory" for extraordinary accomplishments on the playing field, do they find it equally offensive if great artists credit a higher power for amazing gifts that enriched humanity?
The musical manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach show him writing the initials "SDG" at the beginning and end of all of his some 300 church compositions, as well as attaching the same abbreviation to many of his immortal secular works. The initials stand for soli deo gloria ("to God alone be glory"). No one assumes that Bach expressed these sentiments to imply some divine favoritism for his music above contributions by his less religious friend and rival, Georg Philipp Telemann. Instead, Bach humbly acknowledged the creator as the ultimate originator of his miraculous creativity, much as a distinctly blessed athlete in our century might acknowledge the almighty as the true source of his own health, power and skill.
The argument against injecting blessing and praise into what Rabbi Jacobs calls the "fleeting trivialities of popular culture" maintains that association with such ephemera actually diminishes our sense of the divine. But the other side insists that expressions of appreciation to a higher power help place even our silliest earthly endeavors in proper perspective, without any alteration of our perceptions of God.
If a champion wins an Olympic medal, an Oscar, a Super Bowl, or even a significant political campaign, and celebrates the triumph with invocation of the almighty's reign, that victor doesn't claim supernatural favor but rather recognizes mortal limits to his own power. When the most admired public figures take time to express gratitude and share credit, it suggests an admirable quality of humility that remains in short supply in celebrity culture and the nation at large.