Christ apparently needs a new image. A small group of wealthy conservative Christians has decided to market Christ as relatable, inclusive and loving in a three-year $1 billion marketing campaign called He Gets Us.
The campaign launched in certain markets last year and went nationwide during this year’s Super Bowl.
Can He Gets Us get results? Christianity has a tangled history that has often seen Christians behaving in very un-Christian ways. Non-Christians see the anger, hatred and self-righteous attitudes, and they turn away.
The 1990s: A Pivotal Decade
The decline of Christianity in America is a recent development. The percentage of Americans who identified as Christian held steady at around 90 percent for several decades prior to the 1990s. Then suddenly, the number went into a free all.
In only seven years, “the share of 18-to-35-year-olds who said they were Christians dropped a full 14 percentage points to 73%, while the percentage who answered ‘none’ jumped to 20%, an increase of 12 percentage points,” per the Religion News Service (RNS), a global news agency that covers religion, spirituality, ethics and moral issues.
Twelve and 14 percentage points are significant given that change on a large scale typically occurs slowly. Read more here.
The Pew Research Center breaks down the decline in American Christianity this way:
- About 90 percent of adults in the U.S. said they were Christian in the early 1990s.
- 80 percent of American adults identified as Christian in 2000.
- 75 percent said they were Christian in 2015.
- 65 percent identified as Christian in 2020.
Read more from the Pew Center here.
Why Are Christian Churches Hemorrhaging?
Declining membership and attendance at Christian churches is complicated, and a list of all the causes would probably fill several pages. However, the RNS post lists and discusses several causes that make sense, although I haven’t seen them elsewhere.
The end of the Cold War: The Cold War affected Christianity in America? It actually did. The Cold War pitted the good guys in white hats – those “virtuous” Christian capitalists in the West – against the bad guys – the godless communists in the Soviet Union.
With the Cold War’s end, Americans no longer felt that being non-religious meant they were un-American. Consequently, a lot of “nones” came out of the closet.
Backlash against the religious right: Millions of Americans wanted to distance themselves from fanatic right-wing Christians who gained significant power in the 1980s and 1990s. Not all conservatives were fanatic, of course, but enough of them were to paint all of them extremist in some people’s eyes.
The conservatives’ agenda included such issues as outlawing abortion; suppressing people of color, immigrants and others who are somehow different; and denying the LGBTQ+ community certain rights that others enjoy.
“When faced with the strident rhetoric of the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed for the church exits and never came back,” RNS said.
Many of these Christians ended up distancing themselves from all forms of Christianity, thereby punishing moderate and liberal Christians on the grounds of guilt by association.
I can identify with the moderates who chose to leave the church. When I left home for college, I had one foot out the church door. My parents were loving and supportive, and Christ had nothing to do with my desire to leave.
But living in a small town meant that everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing and saying, and I wanted to get away from the hypocrisy, racism and conservative theology that I saw in my church and community.
Political polarization: Political polarization was and is a huge factor. As the backlash against fanatic right-wing Christianity gathered steam, Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 and selected Newt Gingrich as their leader.
Gingrich depicted Democrats as “morally inferior” and “godless,” and those labels stuck. He also refused to compromise on anything. Conservatives became entrenched in radical right-wing politics, and Democrats took a middle-to-left stance. As time passed, both sides dug in their heels.
Conservative Christians loved Gingrich, but he alienated many young Americans. A good number of them decided to choose the “godless” moderates and liberals over the “godly” right-wing radicals that Gingrich represented. Young people left churches in droves.
The internet: The internet was another contributing factor. It exposed young Christians to faiths they would never have known without the World Wide Web and to problems within their own faith that they would never have considered.
Many of these young people raised their children oubleetside the church. Those children are now raising their children outside the church, and future generations may do likewise.
Enter He Gets Us
So, here we are in 2023: an angry nation that’s sharply divided along political and religious lines and a $1 billion marketing campaign to sell Christ as relatable, inclusive and loving. I use the $1 billion figure because it’s the amount that’s been bandied about in relation to the total three-year campaign budget.
The campaign targets millennials and Gen-Z, meaning people who were born between 1981 and 1996 (millennials) or 1997- 2012 (Gen-Z). (The dates for Gen-Z are a little fuzzy, but 1997-2012 is how the Pew Research Center defines this group, and I will go with it.)
Rediscovering or Packaging & Selling Christ?
He Gets Us includes television commercials, social media, billboards and other tools of the marketing trade. You may have seen or heard about the two commercials that ran during the recent Super Bowl. Watch those spots along with several others here.
We are told on the He Gets Us website that the goal “is to move beyond the mess of our current cultural moment to a place where all of us are invited to rediscover the love story of Jesus. Christians, non-Christians, and everybody in between.” Hmmm.
Christians Behaving Badly
The commercials that have been released thus far are beautifully done, although one critic called them “bizarre.” I thought the still photos were dramatic, the words and music simple but impactful, and the message meaningful.
They show Christ as one of us: a rebel, an immigrant, a man filled with love or righteous anger. An inclusive man who welcomes people that society rejects. An outsider.
Can He Gets Us get results with people who have left the church or have never been churchgoers? It’s a tall order.
Christians are supposed to represent Christ on earth, but it’s often hard for outsiders to see Christ in us. Are Christians relatable, inclusive and loving? Not always. Do we welcome gays and trans people to our churches? Many churches don’t. Do we open our church doors to people whose skin is different than ours? Probably not. Are we judgmental? Most of the time. Do we look down on or condemn other people’s sex lives, real or imagined? Quite often. Do we forget that we should leave judgment to the Lord? Yes.
Many churches prefer the status quo and pastors who maintain it. I have experienced those churches. They find a cozy little niche and fight anyone who wants to make their church any larger or less cozy. Newcomers who are “different” are seen as problems.
Campaign Success & Backlash
Can He Gets Us get results?
He Gets Us commercials have become successful in one way. Millions of people have seen them online even before they aired on television. The collateral marketing materials such as billboards, social media and print products also are attracting attention.
See the He Gets Us website here.
One negative is the price tag, according to the Newsweek post “Jesus Super Bowl Ad Sparks Outrage at Massive Price Tag.”
“Ahead of the Super Bowl weekend, social media users questioned whether the wealthy Christian backers behind the ad campaign were hypocrites for spending millions on marketing Christianity, rather than using the funds for another religious initiative, like philanthropy, that is typically promoted as the core of faith,” Newsweek said.
Good point. Imagine what you could do with $1 billion in terms of providing disaster relief in Turkey, Syria and numerous other spots around the world; building schools and churches in remote or impoverished areas; providing medical care in African nations and elsewhere; helping people build water treatment facilities to provide clean water in poverty-stricken countries; funding scholarships for students in remote areas to attend medical schools, engineering colleges and seminaries ….
There are so many needs that cannot be met around the world. Imagine how far $1 billion would go.
One red flag for me is the people behind He Gets Us. The only contributor who has announced his involvement is Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green, and his name is causing controversy.
David Green and Hobby Lobby have “a long history of scandals,” according to Business Insider, a multi-national financial and business news website based in New York City. You can read the Business Insider article here.
The scandals might make you wonder whether Green really believes Christ’s teachings — teachings that Green is pushing with He Gets Us.
Women’s issues are one example. Christ welcomed women to the faith and in one case, healed a woman who had had a bleeding disorder for 12 years. I’m fairly sure that the women reading this post will understand the nature of her problem.
Her life would have been lonely because people who lived around her would have considered her unclean and would have carefully avoided any contact with her. She would been disconnected from the world had Christ not intervened.
Denying Women Birth Control
On the one hand, we have Christ healing a woman with a bleeding disorder. On the other, we have Green refusing potentially life-saving health care to his female employees.
Green adamantly opposed Obamacare’s mandate requiring employers “to provide health insurance that includes birth control and reproductive care” for women, for example.
How is that loving?
Business Insider reported that Green also filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2012 “for the right to deny contraceptive coverage to employees,” claiming that the mandate violated the company’s religious rights.
How is that loving?
The conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in 2014, saying that private companies could be exempt from the law based on their religious beliefs.
How does denying contraception help anyone, particularly the working poor?
Then, several wealthy business owners sent a letter to the White House in which they called “for exemption from Obama Administration policies that prevented discrimination on the basis of sexuality.” President Obama wanted to prevent discrimination, and this group openly admitted they wanted to discriminate.
They said they wanted “autonomy in hiring and operation decisions,” Business Insider said. In other words, they wanted the legal right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
How is that inclusive?
Business Insider noted that David Green is “a massive donor to the National Christian Foundation, a non-profit religious organization that includes anti-LGBTQ efforts as part of its platform.”
How is that inclusive?
You can read the Business Insider article about Green’s legal controversies here.
Can He Gets Us Get Results?
Can He Gets Us get results? I see three major problems with the campaign:
- The people providing the money do not believe in the message they are conveying to the tune of $1 billion. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.
- The contributors are not addressing the real problem. They are focusing on Christ when one of the real problems is the un-Christian behavior of Christians. Marketing Christ as relatable, inclusive and loving shouldn’t be difficult because he is all those things. Many Christians aren’t those things, and non-Christians can see the truth. I would steer clear of my own religion were I on the outside looking in.
- The $1 billion marketing budget could be put to better use:
- Earthquake recovery in Turkey and Syria
- Flooding in parts of Africa and Brazil
- Droughts in several African nations and in the U.S. states of Florida and Texas
- War in Ukraine and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, drug wars in Central America, civil war in Afghanistan and Syria and political unrest in Iraq (per World Population Review)
- Widespread flooding and landslides in California
- Periodic tornadoes and hurricanes in other parts of the U.S.
If the wealthy contributors believe the He Gets Us message, they should consider putting their millions into church-sponsored projects that will help people. They might also volunteer the way Jimmy Carter has volunteered for decades with Habitat for Humanity.
Get More Information
If you’re interested in reading more about the decline in Christianity in the U.S., you may want to read a Christianity Today post here.
or see a Pew Research Center post here.
Several of my fellow Patheos contributors have written informative articles about He Gets Us and the decline of Christianity, as well.
He Gets Us, But Who Will Get Him? by Esther O’Reilly. Read it here.
What’s Really Killing the Evangelical Church: The American Dream and the Sin of Ambition by Anthony Costello. Read it here.
Just Look What’s Become of Us by Shane Phipps. Read it here.
And I’ve written several posts on religion and politics, as well:
Abortion, GOP Politics & Political Expediency Read it here.
Can You Be a Devout Christian and Also a Liberal? Read it here.
Should We Have Politics in America’s Pulpits? Read it here.