This month, a $100 million advertising campaign and website have been launched nationwide to help a particular figure rebrand. In the current climate, just who, do you think, might warrant such a massive PR blitz?
My own answer would be “no one,” because this kind of spending to prop up the reputations of the already highly privileged strikes me as one of the more disgusting excesses of capitalism. But whether or not you share my convictions, I’m guessing you didn’t come up with the answer “Jesus.” Yes, that Jesus. A man who’s not even alive—at least not in a way that’s accessible and demonstrable to those of us on this mortal plane—and who is, despite the release of yet another major documentary last year, almost certainly bigger than the Beatles.
Despite all that, some conservative Christians are apparently one-hundred million dollars worth of concerned that the enduringly popular Mr. of Nazareth just isn’t doing it for some of the kids these days. Hence, the rebrand to make the ostensible son of God ‘cool’ and ‘relatable.’
The “He Gets Us” campaign is a project of the Servant Christian Foundation, which Christianity Today describes as “a nonprofit backed by a Christian donor-advised fund called The Signatry.” Both the Servant Foundation and the Signatry, its financial arm, are headed by Steve French—and that’s all we know about who exactly is behind the campaign. Donor-advised funds, which don’t have to disclose the identities of the donors providing the funding for the projects they support, are often used by the Christian Right to minimize transparency. As CT reports, the “He Gets Us” ad spots were produced by Bill McKendry, whose portfolio includes campaigns for notorious Christian Right organizations like Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom.
The “He Gets Us” spots feature all the forced earnestness of the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ads from the 1980s, but none of the accidental hilarity and iconic qualities that make those spots such an enduring aspect of Gen-X and early Millennial nostalgia. I may be a little over 40 and only an irregular consumer of TikTok videos, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that “He Gets Us” is hardly going to register with today’s youth.
Gen Z is the least religious generation, and I’m pretty sure that this tech-savvy, culturally aware, and #VeryOnline generation is not going to be ‘won back to Christ’ by, for example, a heavy-handed quasi-parable about Jesus inviting everyone to his table and being “heartbroken” that some refuse his invitation, “because he wanted everyone to be filled—not with food and wine, but with compassion.”
On a superficial level, the “He Gets Us” spots have high production value, but that’s where their sophistication ends. The prose and delivery of their voiceovers are classic evangelical, managing to be somehow both vague and overwrought, in addition to being just, well, obnoxiously concerned. Meanwhile, the music is straight out of the manipulative megachurch worship service’s tug-on-the-heartstrings playbook—as someone who grew up partly in “seeker-sensitive” evangelicalism, I ought to know.
The ads also feature mostly people of color, but interestingly enough, in the photo of the Signatry’s board of directors featured on its website, I count eleven white men, three men of color, and one white woman. Don’t think that disconnect will go unnoticed by zoomers, who have excellent Google skills and don’t tend to take ideological messaging at face value.
Above all, the ads, which direct viewers to HeGetsUs.com, radiate an aura of phoniness, holding up a seemingly pro-social-justice and inclusive vision of Jesus, who frankly comes across as “the Black friend” of the people behind the campaign. Tellingly, the ads avoid mentioning any actual hot-button issues by name or taking any direct political stances, while leaving viewers to wonder, “Alright, it’s obvious that you want something from me, so what is it?” If there’s one thing I know about zoomers, it’s that they’ll see through such ham-handed efforts in a heartbeat, and then probably mock them, in meme form.
So, what do the folks behind “He Gets Us” want from the people they reach? There are a couple of ways to get at the answer to that question. Along with considering Bill McKendry’s record mentioned above, one is to take a look at the 990 forms the Signatry has filed with the IRS. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which include churches and charities, are tax exempt. But in order to maintain that status, they’re required to make annual financial filings that are matters of public record.
Thanks to that requirement, we can use 990 forms to find out what sort of organizations receive particularly large donations via the Signatry. And wasn’t it… who was that again? Oh yes, it was Jesus who reputedly said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and in that instance, at least, he had a point.
According to the Signatry’s 2020 form, the most recent available, in 2019 the organization directed over $19 million of funding to Alliance Defending Freedom, an SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group and the organization that wrote the model legislation on which Mississippi’s draconian new abortion ban was based. Nearly $8 million went to Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist ministry behind the Creation Museum. Over $1 million is designated for Campus Crusade for Christ (rebranded as “Cru” since 2011). $374,800 went to Al Hayat Ministries, an organization that seeks to “respectfully yet fearlessly unveil the deception of Islam,” and that runs an Arabic-language Christian satellite TV station with the goal of converting Muslims to Christianity.
There’s a more direct way to approach the question of what the “He Gets Us” folks want out of the people they reach, however, and that’s to interact with their website, which offers chat and “text for prayer” options to visitors. I was first alerted to the site when my friend Artemis Stardust, who writes about their experience escaping and healing from their upbringing in a homeschooling, Quiverfull, evangelical Christian family, tagged me in a Facebook post about the PR project. While my initial reaction was along the lines of “WTAF,” I soon found myself sucked in to investigating the bizarre phenomenon further.
Stardust told me they had checked out the chat feature on HeGetsUs.com and described their experience as follows: “I asked some questions about how churches conceal abuse and was told multiple times to seek answers in the context of a church community, to read the bible and pray, and to be willing to listen.” They added, “Rather than engaging with my concerns, the staff member kept sending quotes from the Bible or links to resources on how to find a church or get their prayer team to pray for me.”
Hearing that, I decided to check out the chat feature for myself. Posing as an evangelical college student ‘struggling’ with my gender identity, I had a similar experience. The staff member I chatted with urged me to tell my pastor and my parents my secret, with seemingly little regard for whether it would be safe for me to do so. To his credit, he told me he wasn’t a licensed counselor and that I should see one, but when I said I was afraid that a counselor might lead me astray, he clarified that I should definitely only consider a Christian, “biblical” counselor. At one point he quoted “male and female he created them,” a passage from the book of Genesis frequently used by evangelicals to ‘justify’ their opposition to trans rights and same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Ryan Stollar, a child liberation theologian and another friend of mine, took a different approach to the “He Gets Us” chat feature, publicly posting screenshots to Facebook. Adopting the persona of a conservative evangelical angry at the ad spots’ faux social justice-oriented approach, Stollar notes that “‘the marginalized’ are people like gay people and people of color,” and asks “So you support them?”
In response, the staffer explains that the point is for those very people to be drawn in and changed so they conform to conservative evangelical values:
“It would be our hope that all people—regardless of skin color or sexual orientation—comes [sic] to know Christ and live in Gospel [sic] community. Ultimately to be transformed by the radical love of Christ to live in close relationship with him. Which also means to abide by His word that we believe the Bible is clear about—speaking to several of the things you just mentioned.”
Still, Stollar continued to press the point, asking why the campaign was making Jesus seem like he’d approve of Black Lives Matter, which Stollar, in his adopted angry evangelical persona, described as “antichrist.” Stollar challenged the staffer, “The ‘Wrongly Judged’ video says Jesus and the disciples ‘roamed the hood,’ ‘challenged authority,’ and ‘law enforcement called them outlaws.’ All paired with images of minorities. So, roaming hoods and disobeying the police are now being glorified?”
In an attempt to clarify, the staffer insisted, “That lifestyle is absolutely not being glorified by this campaign.” He then explained, “Rather, it would be our heart to see those people who are living that lifestyle as they’re living it in our world today would [sic] REPENT and turn from that lifestyle.”
As the CT report cited above notes, the “He Gets Us” website is working with Gloo, a Koch-connected company that uses big data to help churches target the vulnerable for outreach and conversion. The report also mentions that “He Gets Us” promotes Alpha, a global initiative launched in the UK known for its homophobic views, which makes it pretty clear that “growing in gospel community” means becoming both straight and right-wing. In sum, it’s quite clear who the people behind “He Gets Us” are, even if their goal is to reel in the youth before they’re fully aware of what they’re getting into.
At the end of the day, “He Gets Us” amounts to both an egregious misuse of $100 million (an amount that could do so much to, for example, alleviate the pervasive problems of homelessness or unaffordable medical care in the United States) and a predatory type of manipulation. Thankfully, the manipulation, at least, is obvious so we can take some comfort in how easy it is to see through.
The “He Gets Us” campaign has “right-wing evangelical” written all over it. You heard it here first, folks. This new PR blitz for Jesus is going to be a flop, and American secularization will continue apace.