This year’s Super Bowl included two commercials selling a loving, human Jesus Christ with the tagline “He Gets Us. All of Us.” They are part of a huge advertising campaign featuring billboards, TV ads, and YouTube Videos. All portray Jesus as someone who understands our struggles because he has experienced them too. They use slogans like “Jesus was a refugee,” “Jesus rallied for justice, too,” “Jesus championed women,” and “Jesus didn’t always feel welcome at church.” The videos are available in English or Spanish and direct viewers to a website that emphasizes how “radically inclusive” Jesus was. The campaign also has a Facebook page, and is on Instagram and Tiktok.
The first time I saw a “He Gets Us” billboard as I drove from Round Rock to Pflugerville, I was impressed. It presented a Jesus who loves, includes, and “gets” everyone. I thought it was a wonderful alternative to the hateful words and actions of some Christians who condemn immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christians, and others who don’t share their beliefs. I felt the same way when I saw the videos, especially “Dinner Party,” which is featured prominently on the website.
It’s a great message that points out the obvious contrast between the inclusivity of Jesus and the exclusivity of many who claim to follow him. The only problem is that the sponsors of this massive ad campaign don’t believe a word of it. They don’t buy the loving, accepting version of Jesus they’re selling; he is just the bait to attract people they hope to convert.
Follow the money
The campaign is funded by the Servant Foundation, which does business as The Signatry. It’s a “donor-advised” 501(c)3 nonprofit that is not required to disclose who its donors are. However, it does have to file an IRS Form 990 which lists the organizations it financially supports. The largest cash grant it awarded was $16,657,150 to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that wrote a strict abortion ban Mississippi used as a model and is designated as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Texas-based 121 Community Church got $10,800. That church’s website lists beliefs like “all people who do not have faith in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in hell,” and “marriage has only one meaning: the uniting of one biological man and one biological woman.” Vision Communications International, which lists a P.O. box in Dallas as its mailing address, received $75,000. One of that organization’s programs, “Beginnings,” is about the creation of the world. Its description on their website notes that by “contrasting the theory of evolution with what the Bible says about God and life, it educates an atheist or agnostic audience while teaching believers how to defend the Word of God.”
40 Days for Life, based in Bryan, got $16,000. It conducts 40-day prayer vigils to educate communities about the “tragic reality” of abortion and “call to repentance” workers and patrons of facilities that provide abortions. Human Coalition in Frisco got $2,014,500 to spread a similar message:
“Abortion is a stain on America. And the God who gives life will not hold us guiltless. Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever.’ We tremble as well.”
To be fair, The Signatry does support some organizations that appear to directly help needy individuals and communities. One example is the Abundant Life Foundation in Austin. It received $100,000 in support of its mission to “create positive environments where the disadvantaged of Honduras have opportunities to transform their lives through dignified housing communities and educational programming.” Another is the North Texas Food Bank in Plano, which got $12,000.
However, the overwhelming majority of organizations The Signatry funded share similar conservative beliefs: The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Only Christians go to heaven when they die; everyone else spends eternity in hell. Any marriage other than one between a cisgender man and a woman is not legitimate. Transgender individuals need to embrace the gender they were assigned at birth because God created everyone male or female. Abortion is never morally acceptable and should be illegal in all circumstances.
As the He Gets Us campaign continues, additional information about the people associated with it and their agenda is coming to light. What was initially described as a $100 million one-year campaign is now stretched over three years at a cost of $1 billion. The two 2023 Super Bowl ads (created by Dallas-based ad agency Lerma) alone cost $20 million. Bill McKendry, founder of Haven, the marketing, messaging, and branding firm behind the campaign, explained its purpose to Christianity Today: “Is the goal that people become Christians? Obviously.” He later added that market research “found skeptics were more likely to be convinced their values lined up with Jesus’ than with other religious figures like Mohammad or Buddha.”
McKendry lists some of his other nonprofit clients on his LinkedIn profile. They include the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ark Encounter, Focus on the Family, Young Life, and World Vision. All are conservative Christian organizations eager to “save” non-Christians by converting them. For example, Ark Encounter is a Kentucky attraction featuring a lifesize replica of Noah’s Ark. Its website notes that we are all condemned to suffer eternally and only Jesus can save us from God’s wrath. According to the SPLC, Focus on the Family’s founder James Dobson “spent his life working tirelessly against rights for LGBT people and reproductive rights for women,” and the group still reflects similar values today. World Vision encourages anyone interested in knowing more about a relationship with Jesus to check out Alpha, the same group to which the “He Gets Us” website directs visitors who want to explore their questions in a group setting.
Alpha, like the “He Gets Us” campaign, is designed to appeal to non-Christians. Both claim to provide safe places for diverse people to express doubts and ask questions and initially appear to do so. Churches and other groups around the world use the Alpha course (originally designed to be a 10-week, in-person experience for small groups of no more than 12 people), and some do supplement course materials with other resources that reflect their more progressive theology. However, many share the conservative views of Nicky Gumbel, the charismatic Church of England minister who founded Alpha and wrote its curriculum. Gumbel is certain non-Christians will go to hell and that the Bible teaches gay people need to be healed and any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful.
Another company associated with the “He Gets Us” campaign is Gloo. The campaign’s website includes (in small print near the bottom of the page) a statement that it is “powered by Gloo.” A separate website for churches that want to get involved with the campaign further explains,“He Gets Us is partnering with Gloo to make it easier for churches to get connected to the campaign—and access resources that drive more engagement” Essentially, Gloo is a social media marketing tool for churches, offering texting tools, a “prayer platform,” and other digital resources geared towards believers.
Charles Kriel starred in the 2020 documentary People You May Know, which exposed disturbing digital data harvesting practices at the intersection of tech and religion. He described Gloo as a religious software company commissioned by the Koch brothers to “‘create a platform where churches could specifically target people who are suffering from mental illness or grief in order to recruit them … and then to weaponize them for the politics of the far right.’”
In the documentary, Kriel, specialist advisor to UK Parliament on disinformation, linked Gloo with Cambridge Analytica and accused them of collaborating to use “microtargeting” to radicalize vulnerable people into extreme right politics.
One major donor emerges from the shadows
During a November 29, 2022, interview with conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck, Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green briefly mentioned the “He Gets Us” campaign. Haven’s president, Jason Vanderground, later confirmed that David Green’s family is one of the campaign’s major funders. The Green family has a long history of trying to impose their conservative religious beliefs on others. In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Hobby Lobby’s right to exclude coverage for contraceptives from the health insurance provided to employees. Green argued that providing coverage for certain kinds of contraceptives would violate his religious beliefs. That same year, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green (David’s son) pushed to get a Bible-based curriculum into public schools in one Oklahoma district. The Associated Press obtained emails related to private meetings with school board members about the proposed curriculum. The district superintendent admitted that, at the direction of Green and his PR team, he had insisted on separate presentations so the public wouldn’t have to be invited.
David Green has also financially supported the National Christian Foundation, another donor-advised fund. A Sludge investigation revealed that, according to the NCF’s three most recent available tax filings (2015-17), it has donated $56.1 million on behalf of its clients to 23 nonprofits identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.
Other controversies arose in conjunction with the Museum of the Bible, which Steve Green founded and funded. It opened in 2017, a few months after federal prosecutors discovered that Hobby Lobby had illegally smuggled stolen biblical artifacts. Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the artifacts and pay $3 million to resolve the civil action filed by the Justice Department. Since then, many of the museum’s other artifacts have turned out to be stolen or fake.
Teaching the ‘Lausanne Covenant’
The people funding or creating content for the “He Gets Us” campaign are not the only ones with conservative agendas. The website assures visitors that “we’re not ‘left’ or ‘right,’” and “we’re also here to support and listen to you.” Some who have used its live chat feature disagree. One writer who adopted the persona of an evangelical college student questioning their gender identity was advised to tell their pastor and parents and get a Christian, “biblical” counselor. The man who gave that advice during the chat also quoted a Bible verse (Genesis 5:2, “male and female he created them”) often used against transgender individuals.
The campaign claims to welcome diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. Its website includes this statement: “We hope that all churches will participate in the ‘He Gets Us’ campaign focusing on Jesus’ message of love and acceptance of all people.” The reality is that not all churches are welcome to do so. The “Our Beliefs” section of a separate website for campaign “partners” emphasizes that all participating churches must affirm the Lausanne Covenant.
The Lausanne Covenant is popular among evangelical churches. It describes the Bible as “the only written word of God, without error,” and rejects “every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies.” It claims all governments have a “God-appointed duty” to ensure “conditions of peace, justice, and liberty in which the Church may … preach the gospel without interference.”
The requirement that partners affirm that covenant ensures that only conservative evangelical churches will be able to chat live or otherwise connect with anyone who visits the campaign’s website. He Gets Us also invites visitors to join an external site where they are encouraged to create a profile and start reading selected Bible verses. Each day’s verses come with a commentary showing their relevance to the themes emphasized in the campaign.
That site is for YouVersion, also available as a Bible reading app and identified as “a digital ministry of Life.Church.” The website for Life.Church says its mission is to “lead people to become fully devoted followers of Christ.” That statement is followed by the usual litany of conservative Christian beliefs. Life.Church also has an online library of articles on various topics, including one with this advice for parents who need to teach their kids about purity: “Discuss why God’s design for sex, purity, and relationships is better than the world’s. God has established sex to be enjoyed and treasured within the bounds of a marriage between one man and one woman.”
Reactions to ‘He Gets Us’ campaign
The He Gets Us ads are getting a lot of attention. The first videos were posted on YouTube a year ago, and the English version of the most popular one, “The Rebel,” has gotten 88 million views. However, it only has 1,300 likes and the campaign’s YouTube channel only has 22,900 subscribers. Comments are not allowed. The Spanish version of the video has gotten 20 million views but only 68 likes. The “Dinner Party” video has received over 80 million views.
The campaign’s Facebook page has about 47,000 followers and 29,000 likes. Apparently it isn’t moderated, because most of the comments contain criticism. Many argue the money could have been better spent helping people in need. Some conservative Christians are appalled that Jesus is presented as human (and especially as a refugee) with no mention of his divinity or the requirement that people must repent their sins and accept him as Lord to be saved. A few point out who is funding it—some to defend the campaign as legitimate and faithful when their fellow conservatives criticize it, and others to denounce it.
Other social media sites are also full of comments about the campaign. Here’s one example from Twitter: “Conservative evangelicals will do anything—including spending $1BILLION on a foolish ‘he gets us’ marketing campaign—to get people interested in church … other than actually following Jesus by supporting social, racial, economic, LGBTQ, and reproductive justice of course.”
Major media outlets are covering the ad campaign, too. Yahoo’s reprint of a Parade article headlined “‘He Gets Us’ Super Bowl Ads for Jesus Flagged by Fans Criticizing Company Funding Them” had more than 1,000 comments within two hours of publication. CNN’s article about the ads includes this quote from pastor and biblical scholar David Young: “Jesus doesn’t have an image problem, but Christians and their churches do. These campaigns end up being PR for the wrong problem.” Young also doubts the campaign will sway the people it is most eager to reach. He notes that young people are “digital natives who understand the difference between slick marketing and authenticity.”
Based on the negative comments about the campaign on multiple social media platforms, including its own Facebook page, Young seems to be right.
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