Behind the 'He Gets Us' ads for Jesus airing during the Super Bowl
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally, today, you might already be getting ready for one of the biggest events in sports taking place tomorrow. Many of us look forward to it all year. Of course, we're talking about the Super Bowl. This year, Rihanna will be there, and so will some powerful messages about one of the central religious figures of all time. We're talking about Jesus.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: A rebel took to the streets. He recruited others to join him. They roamed the hood and challenged authority. Community leaders feared them. Religious leaders abhorred them. We have to get them off the streets, they said. But they weren't part of a gang spreading hate and terror. They were spreading love.
MARTIN: That's an ad from the He Gets Us campaign. It's a riveting series of ads that place the biblical figure into current newsworthy situations, like being a refugee or isolated loner or condemned prisoner. And they all end with the line, he gets us, all of us. That one we just heard has more than 100 million views on YouTube so far. And if the sponsors have their way, those ads will get many more eyes on them because if reports are accurate, the organizers, who include the conservative family that founded Hobby Lobby, have spent an estimated $20 million on ads to air during the Super Bowl.
Do you have a problem with that? Josiah Daniels does, sort of. He wrote a piece called "What 'He Gets Us' Ads Get Wrong About Jesus" in the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners, and he's with us now to tell us more about his thoughts. Josiah Daniels, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
JOSIAH DANIELS: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.
MARTIN: So just say a little bit about where you're coming from. You identify as a Christian. You say in your piece that you were actually cautiously optimistic when you first came upon these ads. Would you say a little bit more about why?
DANIELS: Yeah. I mean, I saw the ads actually during March Madness back in 2022, and they're really eye-catching, right? The people are in these contemporary settings and the messages are things I think, you know, that a lot of people can relate to. Jesus was wrongly judged. Jesus suffered anxiety, too. And so there seems to be this message that, initially, I really resonated with. And then once I dug into the campaign a little bit more, I came away with a lot of questions.
MARTIN: Is it that the totality of the ads contain things that you disagree with, or is it something else? Tell me a little bit more about where your sort of cautious optimism migrated to something else. What would you call it? Skepticism?
DANIELS: Skepticism, I think, is a great word. I think that my skepticism initially started when I saw an ad which ended with, Jesus was canceled.
MARTIN: I can play that one. I do have that one. So let me just - let me play that and we can talk more about what you're saying.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: There was an influencer who became insanely popular. Everybody started following him. Then one day, he stood up for something he believed in. People got angry. The establishment called him an extremist, said he shouldn't be allowed to share his views. They would stop at nothing to shut him up. So they did what they had to do. They nailed him to a cross.
MARTIN: And this is the one that ends with the quote, "Jesus was canceled." And I do want to mention that if you haven't seen this ad, that the sort of the person pictured in this ad, as we said, that they kind of put these - they locate these ads in contemporary situations. The person who they've selected to embody this ad is a Black man. So you feel - what? - that this misrepresents what Jesus was actually crucified for, or you think it trivializes the fact of his crucifixion? Say more about why this particular one bothers you.
DANIELS: I do think it trivializes the fact of his crucifixion. You know, I think that there's a vast chasm between cancellation and crucifixion. On the one side, people who are, quote-unquote, being "canceled" or "called out," they're having to come to terms with their lives after experiencing consequences. And on the other side, people being crucified, they're being executed because of their low standing in society.
MARTIN: So most of the donors are anonymous, but the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby, which is a company that sells arts and crafts supplies - their particular Christian values or ethos is important to the business - is known to have helped fund these ads. And Hobby Lobby is known to have - for example, they were behind the legal fight in the Supreme Court for companies not to have to provide contraception on the basis of their religious beliefs. They are known to have supported anti-LGBTQ measures in some states. Is part of your objection to some of these messages who's behind the messages, or do you care?
DANIELS: I do care about who is behind the messages, and I think the other thing that has really bothered me is Haven, which is the marketing and messaging and branding firm, they developed the He Gets Us ads, but they've also developed ads for groups who have worked to oppose LGBTQ rights, like Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom.
MARTIN: So I know you spoke with Jason Vanderground, the spokesperson for He Gets Us. I think their point is that they are trying not to be political, that they're not left or right, that they're not affiliated with any particular church or denomination. What they say is that they want to kind of recover the authentic Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion and love. Do you think that they are?
DANIELS: For me, I think that it's a little bit of a situation where your treasure is, there, your heart will be also. And I think that when you look at where the money's coming from and you look at the organizations that He Gets Us is associated with - specifically when you look at the fact that they are associated with Haven, this marketing and messaging and branding firm that's worked with Alliance Defending Freedom and Focus on the Family, they are telling us in no uncertain terms that while on the one hand, their messaging might be that Jesus accepts everybody, they are working with groups who certainly do not accept everybody. And so that makes me extremely suspicious.
And I think, too, it sort of is - you know, one of the things that Jason told me was He Gets Us wants to raise the respect and relevancy of Jesus because Christian hypocrisy has damaged Jesus. And I think that it's sort of the height of Christian hypocrisy to, on the one hand, say we really want to accept everyone, but then on the other hand, you're taking money from people who have worked to curb access to abortion rights or they've worked to curb LGBTQ rights. And I think that's wrong, and it really does bother me.
MARTIN: I wonder if - and I know that the person you spoke to connected to the campaign did not say this, but I wonder if it's possible that this is a reflection of a rethinking on their part, in the sense that, as you point out and as the reporter - other reporters who've sort of dug into this ad have pointed out, is that Christianity or the way certain - the expressions of it, the institutions that express it, have been damaged by perceived hypocrisy?
DANIELS: Yeah. I mean, I think that specifically, what they should do is they should disassociate from these groups who are working to curb marginalized people's rights. And so if they really do want to sort of, you know, to use their language, rebrand Jesus or rebrand Christianity, they need to make material commitments. They need to make tangible commitments, tangible action steps, and they've not done that. And they have, in fact, told me that they don't encourage activism, whether it's through their partner ministries or individual Christians, and so that's really unacceptable to me, and I think it goes against the supposed message that they have been trying to promote on the website and through the ads.
MARTIN: Do you think this is fundamentally a political difference - a difference of political priorities, or is this a theological difference, in that you in your Christian practice value social justice and perhaps they in their Christian practice value something else? Do you think it's that? What do you think?
DANIELS: Yeah, I mean, I do think that - I think that the confusing thing is that when you go to the site, they're using language like activist, like inclusive, like marginalized. You know, you'll go to the site, and you'll see that there are these multiple posts tagged with activist, justice, inclusive. And so they're using the language of social justice, but there's no material commitment to actually practicing social justice. So that disturbs me. But then on the question of politics and theology, I really see the two going hand in hand. You know, when I think about a passage like Matthew 25, where Jesus is talking about whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me, that is a theological statement, but it's also a political statement. And it's a call to Christians to live out the principles of Jesus in the here and now in, this material world, and that has everything to do with both theology and politics.
MARTIN: That's Josiah Daniels. He is the associate opinion editor at Sojourners, which you can find online at sojo.net. We're talking about a piece that he wrote called "What 'He Gets Us' Ads Get Wrong About Jesus." Josiah Daniels, thanks so much for joining us.
DANIELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.