He Gets Us: Christian Propaganda or the Gospel?

He Gets Us: Christian Propaganda or the Gospel? March 1, 2024

In my last three posts: here, here and here, I argued there are serious problems with the  #HeGetsUs campaign. #HeGetsUs is a ministry run by a 501c3 called “Come Near.” One of the problems I see has to do with the nature of propaganda. But, before I address the problem of propaganda, either in a secular or Christian form, let me briefly address the organization itself.

This is “Come Near’s” own description of the organization, taken directly from the #HeGetsUs website.

A newly formed nonprofit organization, Come Near, is now fully managing He Gets Us initiatives. Come Near has a growing, expert-led staff and dedicated network of partners and supporters.

The movement is not funded by or affiliated with any single individual, political position, church, or faith denomination. We have a coalition of supporters who represent a variety of lived experiences that have led them to wildly different perspectives on many things. Some are on opposite sides of different political and social issues in our day. But they share this one thing in common: They’ve been inspired and transformed by the story of Jesus and want to invite you to explore it, too. They are troubled by how many people feel excluded from considering the personal relevance of Jesus’ example, life, and mission for their own lives. And so, they’re supporting a movement dedicated to helping foster more and better conversations about Jesus.

https://hegetsus.com/en/about-us

Since I am not an investigative journalist, but a mere theologian, I am not going to dig much deeper than their website. However, I think there are some initial concerns to raise about what they themselves have written.

Some Questions and Concerns for #HeGetsUs

Briefly, I would raise these question concerning Come Near and #HeGetsUs:

  1. Why is the group not affiliated with a church or faith denomination?  Does this ministry have any ecclesial authority over or, at least, alongside it?

    I raise this question because the history of ministries that operate outside of or apart from any particular church body, or denomination, is fairly sketchy. In fact, “para” church organizations like this that refuse to associate with a historical church body, can often devolve into something like a cult or sect.

  2. What are “lived experiences” and how do they relate to the truth of the Gospel, or to truth in general?

    I ask this because language of “Lived experience” often is connected to an epistemological view called “standpoint epistemology,” which is, loosely speaking, a form of relativism about truth.

  3. How “wildly different” are these perspectives and, if so, how wildly different are they about Jesus?
  4. If the views of those involved in Come Near are this different, and if many stand on different sides of the “political and social” aisle, then what, if anything, has Jesus actually done for those involved? Or is Jesus ineffectual when it comes to the nature of our beliefs?
  5. The one thing in common is “the story of Jesus.” But is it the “story” of Jesus that transforms us, or is it Jesus?
  6. Who has been excluded about “considering the relevance of Jesus for their lives,” how has that been done, and why do they feel that way?

    Let’s be transparent here, could it be that it just is “the story of Jesus” that makes people feel excluded?

  7. Was the #HeGetsUs footwashing ad a “better” conversation about Jesus? How is this team of experts gauging what are good or better conversations about Jesus? What is the criteria of evaluation and how, given their “wildly” diverse perspectives, have they decided upon that criteria?

Who Are The Propagandists?

One of the things that permeates the #HeGetsUs website , which copies the Black Lives Matter website, is the idea that the image of Jesus in our culture desperately needs to be refurbished.

From their website:

How did the story of a man who taught and practiced unconditional love, peace, and kindness; who spent his life defending the poor and the marginalized; a man who even forgave his killers while they executed him unjustly — whose life inspired a radical movement that is still impacting the world thousands of years later — how did this man’s story become associated with hatred and oppression for so many people? And how might we all rediscover the promise of the love his story represents?

Come Near seems to be engaging in a kind of ecclesial damage control. However, what is going on here, and in other statements made on the website, is analogous to a propagandistic exchange. In response to certain secular narratives about Christianity, ones meant to shape Christian political attitudes, this group of wildly different “Jesus considerers” believes it can step outside the Church and, in some way, respond to the culture from a more neutral ground.

In so doing, they hope to change the narrative that non-Christians in the media are promoting. What results, however, is responding to partial truths with other partial truths (for every instance of propaganda needs some truth to get off the ground). And so, instead of being clear, instead of articulating the Gospel clearly, the creators behind #HeGetsUs have to be intentionally vague and, as such, obscure about who Jesus is and what He does.

In his classic, Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr correctly analyzed this type of religious person. He addresses them as the “Christ of Culture” Christian. According to Niebuhr, it is the Christ-of-Culture Christian who presumes to stand above the Church, and, in doing so, sees the culture more clearly than his or her pedestrian confreres:

The cultural Christians tend to address themselves to the cultured among the despisers of religion; they use the language of the more sophisticated circles, of those who are acquainted with the science, the philosophy, and the political and economic movements of their time. They are missionaries to the aristocracy and the middle class, or to the groups rising to power in a civilization. In these circumstances they may–though they do not need to–participate in the class consciousness of many whom they address; and they may take pains to show that they do not belong to the vulgar herd of the unenlightened followers of the Master.

Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 104-105

Whoever Come Near ministries are, we can surmise from their capacity to run Super Bowl Ads that they are men and women of means, they very likely “address themselves to the cultured among the despisers of religion,” and, perhaps, they do not belong to the “vulgar herd” of simple Jesus folk. Likely they represent an upper class of Christians who move and shake within circles that most “unenlightened followers” do not, nor could even if they wanted to.

This is not an indictment per se of this type of Christian: not of their moral character nor of the orthodoxy of their beliefs. One could certainly argue it is important to have people in such circles, just as it is equally important to have Christians in more culturally simple arenas, like in the lower ranks of the military, the construction industry, or in churches themselves. The Apostle Paul preached Christ to everyone he met: knave and king alike, understanding the universal need for Jesus. The Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20) commands a discipling of the nations, not only of some within the nations.

It is worth noting, however, that with regard to this last point, there is evidence that #HeGetsUs is interested in distancing itself from the idea of “church.” Making this move does raise suspicion that Come Near and #HeGetsUs are operating from a Christ-of-Culture perspective. Unfortunately, it is exactly this kind of person, the cultured sophisticate, who makes not only a good candidate for propaganda, but also creator of it.

What is the Propaganda?

In his classic work on the subject, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jaques Ellul distinguishes between two types of propaganda: agitation propaganda and integration propaganda. The main difference between the two is agitation propaganda seeks to foment resentment in a segment of the population so as to catalyze direct action. This is basically the propaganda of groups like Black Lives Matter, The Black Panthers or the KKK. It is typically associated with Lenin, and classical 20th-century socialist movements. “Agitprop” is in the streets and in your face propaganda, and its main currency is hate (Ellul, 73).

Integration propaganda is more complex than this. Its goal is to “make the individual participate in his society in every way” (75), not to rebel against it. Ellul goes on about integration propaganda:

It is a long-term propaganda, a self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behavior, to adapt the individual to his everyday life, to reshape his thoughts and behavior in terms of the permanent social setting.

Ellul, Propaganda, 75

In short, integration propaganda works over an extended period, using a constant bombardment of images and words to slowly shift the perceptions and beliefs of the individual so that they will “naturally” fall in line with a social norm the dominant powers desire to be permanent. It is this kind of propaganda that Come Near and #HeGetsUs are responding to, and there is a reason why it is them, and not those among the “lower ranks” of church and society, doing the responding.

In his introduction to the book, Konrad Kellen summarizes an important observation of Ellul’s, namely, that it is the cultured, intellectual class that is most susceptible to the effects of propaganda:

Ellul follows through by designating intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reasons: 1) they absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information; 2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important question of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; 3) they consider themselves capable of ‘judging for themselves.’ They literally need propaganda.

Propaganda, vi.

This is why those among the “lower ranks” of culture and the Church tend not to buy into the whole narrative, be it that from the secular side, or from the Christian one. A perfect example of normal Christians looking at the #HeGetsUs response to integration propaganda can be seen here. This is common sense criticism.

In sum, being among the elite in society, those behind #HeGetsUs represent not only the type of person most susceptible to propaganda, but, in imbibing propaganda, they tend to respond in kind.

Appearance Among The People: 1970’s Communist Propaganda Poster

Evangelism or Christian Propaganda?

In my previous post, I addressed a blog by Christian “spiritual mentor” Clare de Graaf, who expressed the desire of the creators of #HeGetsUs to save Jesus’ reputation. One might say that if this means highlighting the distinction between the person of Jesus and His followers, then that is something which has theological merit: for the two are not identical. However, even then, I made the point in my last post that one cannot be in the business of severing the Body of Christ from its Head, regardless of how corrupt the Body at times may appear. Any attack on the Body of Christ is also an attack on Christ Himself (Acts 9:3-6). One cannot defend Jesus by attacking His body, even if we can heal the body by cutting off some of its members (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-13).

But I am not sure this is what #HeGetsUs is doing. Instead what I believe #HeGetsUs is doing is responding to a line of propaganda that, while not new, has been repackaged to fit an internet and social media-saturated world. In doing so they hope not so much to point out that Jesus’ followers can fail to be like Jesus, but that Jesus actually fits into the cultural narrative propagated by secularists. Jesus does not offend the sensibilities or even the moral attitudes and judgements of the culture, rather He can be easily integrated into them. If this is the case, then the propaganda from “the Left” has hit its mark in shifting the beliefs of their target audience: Christian voters.

As such, the non-believer, the secularist, even the co-religionist can, for the most part, go about life as usual. But, it is hoped at least, that they somehow add Jesus to their daily existence. And this even if one believes in some other god, no other god, or very many gods. Jesus can simply be added to the pantheon of belief or non-belief. However, in so doing,  this “Jesus addition” can help improve our political and social interactions. In this light, Jesus becomes something akin to pagan god: like Apollo, the god of Reason and Art, or Athena, the goddess of Wisdom; here we have Jesus, god of social justice, or psychological health, or political unanimity. In proper theological terms, this is called syncretism. It is this same attitude that eventually resulted in Israel’s expulsion from the land.

Ultimately, then, this is not evangelism, nor even pre-evangelism. It is not a claim to truth, or about the way the world is, or about who Jesus is or about why Jesus is The Good News. It is a political ploy, and, being such, a form of propaganda. It is just Christian in form, and not non-christian. But what the world needs now is not more propaganda. Our nation doesn’t need more obscurity, more vagueness, more sneakiness or subtlety. What we need, and I would argue what we long for, is genuineness, authenticity, transparency. In the end, #HeGetsUs didn’t seem to get that.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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