Super Bowl LVII tonight will feature some major stars, from Patrick Mahomes to Rihanna to the always much-anticipated “special guests” of the Barbadian pop singer. But an even bigger celebrity will also make a cameo during Sunday night’s TV extravaganza, probably the most globally recognized and well-liked person in history: Jesus.
Over the past year, the Servant Foundation, a conservative evangelical group, has been using billboard, YouTube, and TV ads in a billion-dollar campaign called “He Gets Us,” to highlight a relatable, forgiving, and compassionate Jesus. The group is spending $20 million to run several of these ads during the Super Bowl.
The Servant Foundation’s research shows that people like Jesus but mistrust Christianity. Young people especially reject the politics and divisiveness associated with evangelicalism. But the “He Gets Us” campaign, while beautifully conceived and executed, seems unlikely to change that. After all, people already have positive feelings about Jesus — and have no compelling reason to rethink organized Christianity or its right-wing politics.
Churches are losing membership among young Americans. Religion has rapidly declined in popularity in recent years: in 2018 and 2019 Pew Research surveys found only 65 percent of Americans identifying as Christians, a drop of 12 percent over the previous decade. Frequency of church attendance has also dropped steadily, while the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has dramatically increased.
Values play a big part in this drift. While evangelical leaders lean politically right, often very far right, Gen Z is strongly empathetic to the needs of the most marginalized and favors government action in solving societal problems. Millennials and Gen Z are racially and ethnically diverse, up against serious financial challenges, and are concerned about racial and economic justice; they take a positive view of gay marriage and view immigration far more positively than older Americans do. These values are incongruent with the far-right Christianity that has dominated the culture for decades. It’s no surprise that young people aren’t interested in the homophobic, economically punitive, and patriarchal Christianity of Republican Texas governor Greg Abbott and megachurches.
In striking black-and-white ads that evoke twentieth century social-realist photography, “He Gets Us” emphasizes that Jesus was just like us. His precarious economic circumstances are explained over a photo montage of contemporary American poverty. Jesus’s family’s experiences as refugees who had to leave their homeland to find safety are narrated over footage of Latin American immigrants fleeing violence to come to the United States. The ads rightly emphasize the timelessness of these Biblical lessons, sometimes with amusing anachronism: Jesus is described as an “influencer” who got “canceled” for speaking his truth. (You thought your bad takes were poorly received — at least you weren’t crucified!). Other “He Gets Us” ads have emphasized Jesus’s message of forgiveness and love, as well as his desire to overcome bitter social divisions and bring people together.
“He Gets Us” is a brilliant and fresh portrayal of Jesus, but Jesus hardly needs this exposure. He doesn’t need YouTube or TV, a hashtag or a slogan (though “He Gets Us” is admittedly an inspired slogan). Everyone already loves Jesus. The problem is that American evangelicals are more Ron DeSantis than Jesus, and anyone momentarily intrigued by these ads and the progressive moral vision they communicate is going to figure that out quickly after stepping foot in a right-wing evangelical or Catholic church.
The organization backing “He Gets Us” does not even share the values of Super Bowl Jesus, nor do those financing the campaign. As Andrew Perez reported for Jacobin last week, the Servant Foundation, between 2018 and 2020, donated more than $50 million to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right group that has been fighting to overturn laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, and helped draft the 2018 Mississippi law at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. One of the campaign’s biggest funders is David Green, the cofounder of the Hobby Lobby, the company that sued the Obama administration to avoid having to pay for employees’ birth control. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in that case, companies now do not have to provide coverage for contraception if the owners can prove that they have religious objections. All of this inflicts more suffering on the working poor — hardly Super Bowl Jesus’s vibe.
Nor are most of the prominent right-wing Christian leaders in America followers of Super Bowl Jesus. Those in elected office, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, are eagerly fueling hatred of immigrants, as well as of every possible racial and sexual minority. Greg Abbott is funding xenophobic and costly “border security” theater and has brutally slashed $211 million from the state’s Heath and Human Services Commission. That’s the agency that administers services to “women, infants and children,” including children’s Medicaid and food stamps. Are these the policies and budget cuts Super Bowl Jesus would sign off on?
Ghouls like Green and Abbott are driving young people away from Christianity. This is the problem Super Bowl Jesus is supposed to solve.
But this is a tall order even for a widely loved Biblical prophet. If viewers, moved by the “He Gets Us” ads, decide to go to hegetsus.com and sign up for its Bible study groups or check out the kind of churches that the campaign’s backers want them to attend, Super Bowl Jesus’s values won’t be heard at the pulpit.
Sure, there are some progressive evangelical churches, and many Catholics and mainline Protestants have long been solidly liberal in their values. But most American evangelical churches and the public figures associated with their values are horribly reactionary and likely to stay that way. Convincing young people otherwise will be harder than turning water into wine.