Comingling faith and football has been a feature of the NFL experience for decades, but this year’s Super Bowl included something different. A group calling itself He Gets Us tweeted: “On February 12, the world’s biggest influencer is coming to TV’s biggest stage,” and they weren’t talking about Rihanna.
He Gets Us wants to re-introduce the world to a gritty, culturally relevant Jesus who “gets” modern audiences, starting with a pair of commercials that aired during Super Bowl LVII. The people funding the He Gets Us campaign plan to spend a billion dollars on billboards, television ads and online media over the next three years, and that’s only the beginning.
“Hoping to start a movement”
They are “hoping to start a movement (to) put the Jesus of the Bible front and center (in) our culture,” said Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, the marketing firm that created the He Gets Us ads.
Who is “they”? What exactly is their message? Who are they trying to reach? What are they really trying to accomplish? And where are they getting all this money?
This raises a series of questions: Who is “they”? What exactly is their message? Who are they trying to reach? What are they really trying to accomplish? And where are they getting all this money?
For six months, Haven conducted market research utilizing telephone and online surveys and concluded Christianity has an image problem. However, Haven’s research also revealed that, with the right coaching, “religious skeptics” and “cultural Christians,” could be persuaded their values align with Jesus’ as opposed to those of Mohammad or Buddha — as defined in the survey.
“Jesus is the really strong brand here,” said Steve French, president of The Servant Foundation, which holds the billion-dollar purse strings.
The group decided America needs a national media blitz about Jesus on par with ad campaigns for brands like Old Navy, Kroger and Mercedes-Benz. After all, using business savvy to repair the damage to American Christianity’s brand is what Jesus would do, concluded Bill McKendry, Haven’s founder and chief creative officer.
Calculated approach to evangelism
It’s part of a calculated approach to evangelism, he acknowledged: “Is the goal that people become Christians? Obviously. But more importantly for now, … we need to raise their level of respect for Jesus, and then they’ll move.”
Launched nationwide in March 2022, the centerpiece of the first year’s campaign is a series of commercials in both English and Spanish, each revolving around a different way in which Jesus “gets us.”
Family problems? Jesus had those. Are you poor or a refugee? Jesus, too. Feeling anxious? Alone? Angry? Same. Cancelled by the crowd? Jesus was crucified.
The ads ran during March Madness and the Grammy Awards, as well as on billboards from Las Vegas to Times Square, culminating in two Super Bowl spots costing $20 million.
“We think Jesus is a big deal, and we want to make a big deal out of it,” Vanderground said. “What better way to do that than to put him in the biggest cultural moment that we have the entire year?”
The Super Bowl ads, like most He Gets Us commercials, are black-and-white montages composed of still photos set to music.
The first ad, “Be Childlike,” is 30 seconds of children hugging and helping one another while Patsy Cline croons “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child).” It ends with the confusing words, “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults,” which in the context of the images seems to encourage viewers to love one another like children do, without regard for issues like politics and race.
The second commercial, “Love your Enemies,” cuts between photos of people yelling at one another at protests, on airplanes, buses and street corners while British singer Rag’n’Bone Man wails: “I’m only human after all. Don’t put the blame on me.” Two-thirds of the way through the spot, the edits speed up and sounds of yelling drown out the song. The commercial then cuts to black, a police siren blares in the distance, and “Jesus loved the people we hate” appears on the screen.
Such a prominent position during the Super Bowl brought heightened scrutiny to He Gets Us, its message and its methods. Many who saw the commercials or heard about the marketing push criticized the cost. Believers and nonbelievers alike thought the millions could have been spent supporting things Jesus cared about, like feeding the poor and housing the homeless.
Response to commercials
On Twitter, author Jemar Tisby called it a “misuse of money.” Other viewers tweeted their criticism of the church never was about Jesus, but about the actions and attitudes of conservative Christians. “I find it ironic that the religious right will spend 100 million to ‘rehabilitate’ the reputation of Jesus, when they were the ones who trashed it,” one observer wrote after the game.
“I find it ironic that the religious right will spend 100 million to ‘rehabilitate’ the reputation of Jesus, when they were the ones who trashed it,” one observer wrote after the game.
The commercials themselves, while emotionally stirring, also are deeply flawed. Some viewers found the “Be Childlike” message tone deaf, coming from an institution with a history of abusing children. “Childlike faith,” a phrase familiar to churchgoers, does not mean much outside of that context.
Others interpreted “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults” as a command to “let the church do the thinking for you.”
“Love Your Enemies” proved even more problematic, especially for people of color. One audience member tweeted after seeing the commercial, “Did I just see an ‘all lives matter’ Jesus commercial?” Juxtaposing photos of Black Lives Matter protestors with white supremacists, insurrectionists and anti-maskers implies these groups are equal.
“I’ll tell you that Jesus definitely doesn’t look at anti-racist and white supremacist protestors like they are the same,” tweeted Jacqui Lewis of Middle Church in New York City.
While progressive Christians panned the He Gets Us commercials for their “both sides” approach, theologically conservative Christians thought the commercials didn’t go far enough.
“The He Gets Us campaign is basically a message that left-wing politics makes you a good Christian,” one viewer tweeted. Conservative opponents faulted the commercials for ignoring the divinity of Jesus and lamented the ads missed the opportunity to “share the gospel.”
Last year, when He Gets Us launched, Christianity Today reported the target audiences for the commercials, billboards and online ads were millennials, ages 25 to 40, and Gen Z, 9 to 24. That makes the Super Bowl ad buy difficult to justify, given ratings for the big game have decreased among viewers 18 to 49 every year over the last decade.
Alyssa Aldape, who falls within the campaign’s stated target demographic, described one ad in a tweet as “a megachurch slide show of a commercial,” and she wasn’t alone in her opinion.
“One gets the sense that a bunch of wealthy (probably white) folks got together because they were dismayed by ‘politics,’ division, and the rise of the ‘Nones’ and asked each other what to do with very little input from others,” Tisby said.
So, did the Servant Foundation fumble the ball with their He Gets Us commercials, or is there something more going on?
Tisby is right on at least one count. The financial backers for He Gets Us are extremely wealthy. The campaign’s funders are a group of billionaire families who, in 2000 under the direction of Bill High, formed a 501(c)(3) called The Servant Foundation to dole out money to conservative Christian causes.
They do much of their doling — $4 billion dollars’ worth so far — under the name The Signatry. The Signatry’s website says its vision is “to write the last check to the last missionary to be sent out to the last unreached people group so the last person can hear the gospel.” It is aggressively evangelical.
It’s impossible to know the identities of The Servant Foundation’s backers and just who will fund that last check because The Signatry is a donor-advised fund, or DAF.
DAFs are not required to disclose the identities of contributors, which makes them convenient for people who want to funnel money to organizations without the public’s knowledge. For example, the fossil fuel industry uses DAFs to fund fake conservative think tanks that spread false information about climate change. An estimated one in eight charitable dollars now flow to DAFs, far surpassing contributions to organizations like the American Red Cross, the United Way and the Salvation Army.
The Signatry’s intentionally vague website says the organization’s values are defined by its partnerships. So, who are those partners and what do they value?
The Signatry’s intentionally vague website says the organization’s values are defined by its partnerships. So, who are those partners and what do they value?
Where the money goes
Rounding to the closest million dollars, the largest donation, $50 million, went to the National Christian Foundation, another DAF. DAFs often transfer money to other DAFs to further hide donors’ identities or as a means to reap tax deductions without actually distributing the money. TrustBridge, another DAF, received $16 million, and The Servant Foundation gave The Signatry, its alter ego, $18 million.
The extensive list of funding recipients includes many charities traditionally associated with evangelical Christianity, like the American Bible Society ($7 million), Young Life ($3 million), Wycliff Bible Translators ($10 million), Campus Crusade for Christ ($1 million), and scores of churches and crisis pregnancy centers.
Some organizations on the list might be less palatable to spiritual skeptics and the general public, such as the fundamentalist charity Answers in Genesis ($10 million), the group responsible for the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter; the Navigators ($1 million), a complementarian discipleship group; Al Hayat Ministries ($200,000), a team seeking to “unveil the deception of Islam”; and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission ($700,000) for its mission to install ultrasound machines in those crisis pregnancy centers and distribute a sexuality guide blaming gender dysphoria on “the Fall.”
Perhaps most disturbing, The Servant Foundation gave nearly $17 million to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative nonprofit that claims to defend free speech and religious liberty as “secular forces chip away at our nation’s Judeo-Christian roots.”
ADF got started in 1994, founded by 30 conservative leaders, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade, Coral Ridge Church’s D. James Kennedy and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association. They originally formed the organization to combat the American Civil Liberties Union, but ADF has expanded its mission to include opposition to homosexuality, transgender rights and health care, abortion, and the “myth of separation of church and state.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled ADF a hate group for its efforts to criminalize sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults and its support of the state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people in Europe.
Alliance Defending Freedom served on the Mississippi legal defense team that helped overturn Roe v. Wade, which it proclaims on its website in a fundraising plea.
The International wing of ADF also partnered with Christian nationalists in Romania, who have close ties to white supremacists and fascists, to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex civil unions. Closer to home, ADF served on the Mississippi legal defense team that helped overturn Roe v. Wade, which it proclaims on its website in a fundraising plea.
The organization also appeared before the Supreme Court, providing free defense for the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. More recently, ADF has requested a preliminary injunction to stop the sale and distribution of mifepristone, the nation’s leading abortion pill.
The Hobby Lobby connection
One contribution of note is the $651,000 in funds and $186,330,420 in artifacts The Signatry donated to the Museum of the Bible, created by David Green, co-founder of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby. Green, with ADF support, successfully argued for a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate.
Often invited to speak with potential donors at The Signatry, Green recently co-wrote a book with founder Bill High. Last November, while promoting his new book on Glenn Beck’s podcast, Green revealed his is one of the anonymous families behind the He Gets Us campaign.
At the beginning of the podcast, Beck claimed the FBI, “federal agencies” and “the media” are weaponizing against Christians. Green agreed. “Things have gone pretty much south on a daily basis here. I can’t even imagine what the government’s asking us to do and how they’re coming against us if you want to be a Christian,” Green said. “There’s something we have to do. I think you’ll see us, our family, with a lot of other families coming on the program. You’re going to see it at the Super Bowl, he gets us. He hates who — he loves who we hate, so I think we have to let the public know and create a movement, really.”
Beck clarified: “He loves those who hate us. You’ve got to be firm and clear on your stance, and I’m not moving, but I can’t hate them.”
Green once more agreed and added, “We have to present the only answer to this, and it’s not politics … it’s him, Jesus, who died for us, loves us, and until we accept him and know him, and his Scriptures, and his book that he’s given us, we can’t settle the problems we have.”
What Green and Beck prescribed as a cure for America’s problems is Christian nationalism, government rule by Christians in accordance with Christian values as defined by conservatives.
“This $20 million ad campaign,” said Erin Simmonds, who studies the intersection of American law and Christianity, “is an example of white conservative Protestants appealing to Jesus in order to appear above the nastiness of the political fray, when the entire enterprise is thoroughly political and enormously consequential.”
He Gets Us promotes Christ’s command to “love your enemies,” but theirs is not a love that respects the autonomy and wholeness of the other.
The campaign and its backers are not interested in entering into a genuine dialogue where both parties are listening and open, what philosopher Martin Buber referred to as an I-Thou relationship. Rather, they embody what Buber called an I-It relationship, in which one party objectifies the other and engages with them only to use them for their own needs. This relationship requires no empathy, presence or willingness to change on the part of the one initiating the conversation.
The He Gets Us campaign sends Jesus out, like another mascot at the Super Bowl, to distract and entertain the crowds while the campaign’s backers fund legislation and support litigation to reshape the cultural, economic and political playing field.
For members of the secretive Servant Foundation and those who share their beliefs and ambitions, the billion-dollar ad campaign isn’t an authentic attempt at evangelism. The He Gets Us campaign sends Jesus out, like another mascot at the Super Bowl, to distract and entertain the crowds while the campaign’s backers fund legislation and support litigation to reshape the cultural, economic and political playing field.
Rebrand, re-energize, reorganize
But The Servant Foundation can’t do this on its own. As Jason Vanderground and David Green both said, they hope to start a movement. He Gets Us is a way to rebrand, re-energize and reorganize evangelical Christians for that movement.
The Pew Research Center reports the number of white Americans who self-identified as “evangelical” increased over the years of the Trump administration. Those who supported Trump began using “evangelical” as a political designation as much as a religious one, and Christians who already called themselves evangelicals did not abandon the label, even if they did not support the former president. Practicing Christians who were not evangelical had moderate feelings about evangelicals, while the brand has taken a hit with non-Christians, who view evangelicals as “narrow-minded,” “racist” and “misogynistic,” according to a report by Barna.
So, Haven, who also handles the branding for Alliance Defending Freedom and Focus on the Family, needed to create a campaign to bring the political MAGA evangelicals into the more established evangelical fold, while rehabilitating the reputation of evangelicalism. If they succeed, the He Gets Us campaign would then be poised to attract more moderate evangelicals.
It’s an “intentionally non-ideological, non-partisan appeal for unity and commonality in Jesus, with a focus not on his messianic unity but on his embrace of American collectivity,” Simmonds said. The He Gets Us commercials are a Rorschach Test. Audiences can read in them their own beliefs about Jesus and America.
When the commercial “The Influencer,” describes Jesus as “cancelled” and depicts him as the victim of a woke mob, it attracts the notice of aggrieved political evangelicals who believe they, too, have been cancelled.
For established evangelicals who agree with political evangelicals on the issues but are embarrassed by the outrage, the commercials contain a coating of “compassionate conservatism.” Like a MAGA politician in a sweater vest, the ads also appeal to what has been called the “movable middle,” those persuadable Christians and skeptics who make up over half the U.S. population.
The He Gets Us commercials were a huge hit with many Christian viewers, who praised the ads in tweets for being a “great message about Jesus” and found them “very powerful.” Some who knew about Green’s involvement still believed a commercial about Jesus was a positive thing.
“Be Childlike” ranked in the viewer top 10 favorite Super Bowl LVII ads at number 8, and “Love Your Enemies” ranked 15th out of the 51 ads shown. EDO, a company that tracks the effectiveness of commercials by measuring the real-time behavior of consumers online, reported “Love Your Enemies” had a rate of engagement 14 times greater than the median Super Bowl commercial, making it the second-highest performing commercial.
This online engagement really matters to those behind He Gets Us. Modern-day movements are made online. And behind the Bible reading plans, prayer requests, apps, live chats and small-group sessions available at hegetsus.com lurks another group of wealthy, powerful political players.
More about them in Part 2.
Kristen Thomason is a freelance writer with a background in media studies and production. She has worked with national and international religious organizations and for public television. Currently based in Scotland, she has organized worship arts at churches in Metro D.C. and Toronto. In addition to writing for Baptist News Global, Kristen blogs on matters of faith and social justice at viaexmachina.com.