50.50: Opinion

‘Jesus was born to a teen mom’ – don’t believe the hype

OPINION: A conservative, right-wing agenda lies behind the modern slogans and slick graphics of the ‘He Gets Us’ ads

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
15 February 2023, 11.25am

'He Gets Us' billboards in Times Square, New York, in March 2022


Loren Matthew, AP Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

In the middle of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the final of the annual National Football League championship and often the most-watched television broadcast of the year in the US, the game was briefly interrupted with two ads for Jesus.

Although the ads have only attracted wide attention over the last few months when they appeared during American football matches, the ‘He Gets Us’ campaign is a $300m (and counting) advertising extravaganza that’s been running nationwide since last March.

Most of the ads display black and white photos, many of people of colour in gritty, modern settings. Emotional music plays as voiceovers attempt to make Jesus seem relevant and relatable to diverse people in today’s world, especially to younger people.

They build up to phrases like “Jesus was a refugee”, “Jesus was born to a teen mom”, “Jesus was wrongly judged” and “Jesus was cancelled too” (a phrase that, especially in the US, indicates a barely coded right-wing political agenda). Each ad concludes with: “He gets us. All of us.”

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Perhaps because I grew up evangelical and am inured to this particular manipulative aesthetic, the ads immediately struck me as essentially phoney.

However, they certainly have reach. The 90 seconds of advertising time during the Super Bowl, reportedly purchased for about $20m, probably reached more than 100 million viewers.

I was one of the first to report on He Gets Us, soon after its launch last year. At first, the campaign remained pretty obscure, and I began to think it would fall flat, despite the initially reported $100m donated to fund it.

But last month, Christianity Today – widely considered the flagship magazine for evangelical Protestants in the US – reported that online videos of the ads had garnered almost 6.5 billion impressions. And in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, the ad campaign was much discussed in the press, particularly following the airing of one of its ads the previous Sunday, during the Grammys.

He Gets Us is part of a conservative evangelical initiative serving conservative evangelical goals

Amid the mainstream media discussion, too little time has been devoted to the right-wing political goals behind the campaign. Instead, journalists seem to defer to the sometimes coded, sometimes clearly disingenuous comments of the ads’ backers, who insist their campaign is apolitical.

Bill McKendry, founder and chief creative officer of Haven, the evangelical advertising company that created the campaign, spoke about the Super Bowl ads before they aired. He described the 60-second spot entitled ‘Love Your Enemies’ as indicating “how Jesus modelled and talked about the third way, which is not right, not left, not conservative, not liberal”.

Such ‘third way’ rhetoric may recall the embrace of neoliberalism by Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton (and Tony Blair’s Labour in the UK) in the 1990s, but it has even deeper historical roots. In the interwar and early Cold War years, conservative Christian intellectuals such as TS Eliot argued for the Christianisation of society as a path forward from failed liberalism, believing this to be a viable ‘third way’ between Communism and fascism.

Whether or not McKendry is familiar with the older conception of ‘third way’ thinking, He Gets Us clearly isn’t just some politically neutral, feel-good campaign spending an obscene amount of money to boost the reputation of a figure already so famous that he has more than 2.2 billion worshippers worldwide.

Rather, it’s part of a conservative evangelical initiative serving conservative evangelical goals. The advertising spots it runs, however, are designed to obscure that connection.

Right-wing evangelical backers

He Gets Us is a subsidiary of Servant Foundation. The foundation’s financial arm is The Signatry, a Christian donor-advised fund that regularly directs many millions of dollars in donations to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a powerful right-wing Christian legal lobbying organisation that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTIQ hate group.

We recently learned that the ads are partly funded by David Green, the right-wing Christian CEO of Hobby Lobby. The arts and crafts chain won a legal battle that limited its US workers’ right to access birth control, and has also been involved in illegal antiquities trafficking in connection with the Museum of the Bible.

Christianity Today published a glowing review of the He Gets Us project at its launch, emphasising its potential to win converts and noting its partnership with Gloo and Alpha – both conservative Christian enterprises.

Concerned that too many young Americans were leaving Christianity, Servant Foundation apparently approached Bill McKendry of Haven to create a “national media blitz”, according to Christianity Today.

Haven’s portfolio includes work for both ADF and Focus on the Family (another well-known evangelical anti-LGBTIQ hate group).

Efforts to convert people to your religion are inherently political, as is the idea we can spiritualise our way out of polarisation

Christianity Today paraphrased McKendry’s response to Servant Foundation as an agreement that “approaching American Christianity’s image problem with business savvy is what Jesus would have done”. McKendry is also directly quoted as saying that the goal of He Gets Us is “obviously” for people to become Christians.

Efforts to convert people to your religion are inherently political, as is the idea that we can spiritualise our way out of American polarisation. In addition, while the people behind the ads are almost certainly sincere in their insistence that all people can come to Jesus just as they are, they are also evangelicals.

As an ‘exvangelical’, I can’t tell you how many times I heard it preached from the pulpit that: “Jesus loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way”. One aspect of the subtext here is that if you’re queer, Jesus will either make you not-queer or give you the strength to be celibate – which is pernicious nonsense, of course.

It's nothing new for savvier evangelicals, the kind who crave respectability, to claim that their outreach campaigns are apolitical. But insisting that they know the will of God for everyone, and using sleight of hand to subsume their political positions under the rubric of ‘spirituality’ or ‘God’s will’, is a political power move designed to make their ideology seem unassailable.

The naivety with which so many journalists and commentators approach these claims – including in their coverage of the He Gets Us campaign, which Esquire’s Jack Holmes called “a net win for America” – is more than just a pattern of failing to do due diligence. It’s an illustration of Christian privilege, and it’s corrosive to a functional pluralist civil society.

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