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“He Gets Us” as cultural barometer

Unhinged responses to a gentle ad campaign indicate hostility to Christianity

A "He Gets Us" billboard in Washington, D.C. He Gets Us LLC

“He Gets Us” as cultural barometer
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If you watched the Super Bowl—or any television at all for that matter of late—odds are you’ve seen one of the new “He Gets Us” ads. In one, a series of images of anger and conflict all-too familiar to us from the past few years of Covid, BLM, and politics gone mad—people yelling at each other in subways, at storefronts, and at protest rallies—culminates with a reminder that “Jesus loved the people we hate.”

In another, a sequence of charming moments of children at their most innocent, loving, and childlike is followed by the text “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults.” Another tells the story of a refugee family in language and pictures evoking a contemporary war zone like Syria, only to reveal that the family in question was Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt. “Jesus was a refugee. He gets us,” it concludes.

For many conservative Christian viewers, the first reaction to such clips may have been narrowed eyes of suspicion. The ads seem to go out of their way to cater to progressive concerns and tug on progressive heartstrings. They leave out all the traditional central features of the gospel story—our sin, Jesus’s divinity, his death and resurrection on our behalf—in place of the classic liberal Jesus: a great moral teacher, born in poverty to empathize with us. This first reaction, though, may be too harsh; the ads are certainly true in what they say, very well-made, and rhetorically brilliant. But they certainly present the kindest, gentlest, most respectable face of Christianity, right?

Wrong. Or at least, even the kindliest and gentlest face of Christianity is no longer respectable in polite society, it would seem, based on the public backlash. Even before the Super Bowl ads aired, multiple mainstream media outlets were running exposes trying to tie them to “extreme politics” and “far-right ideologies,” by which of course they meant “anti-abortion” and “anti-LGBT.”

The amateur sleuthing involved was somewhat laughable, involving as it did the breathless revelations that the same donor-advised fund through which grants had flowed to “He Gets Us,” The Signatry, had also funneled donations to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which “has been designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Never mind that the Signatry oversees tens of thousands of gifts at the behest of thousands of different donors every year, or that the Alliance Defending Freedom is a coalition of some of the nation’s top attorneys focused on litigating religious liberty issues. Beyond all that, the Southern Poverty Law Center is hardly credible as an authoritative source.

Denouncing love for enemies as “fascism” looks more like desperation than cultural hegemony.

For some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even such slurs were not enough. In response to the Super Bowl ad inviting Americans to love their enemies and be more childlike, she tweeted simply, “Something tells me Jesus would *not* spend millions of dollars to make fascism look benign.” Without any further elucidation of what “fascism” she had in mind, one can only assume that from her perspective, anything related to Christianity qualifies.

All of this offers us yet more confirmation, as if more is needed, that we are living in what Aaron Renn has called “Negative World”—a cultural context, post-2014, in which Christianity is no longer seen as a positive force in society, or even as something neutral, but as an actual liability. The producers of the “He Gets Us” ads seem to get this fact as well, going to great pains to sneak their Christian message past people’s instinctive anti-Christianity reflexes. They have apparently concluded that the only chance they have of getting a hostile culture to listen to the Christian message is to resort to indirect communication, framing it in the most winsome terms possible. But even the reminder that Jesus started life as a refugee and migrant is now, according the political left, a message of “hate.”

There are several conclusions we could draw from this. Some might conclude that if we’re going to be tarred as haters anyway, we shouldn’t waste our time with such indirect communication, but should fearlessly shout out the gospel message, come what may. But we should not be too hasty in throwing the “He Gets Us” project overboard. Their approach may be effective, at least as a starting point. Perhaps the very shrillness of the response is a proof of that effectiveness, and exposes a “woke” movement in the terminal stages of self-parody. Denouncing love for enemies as “fascism,” after all, looks more like desperation than cultural hegemony.

At least, so we may hope. On the other hand, we should not forget that it was precisely Jesus’s message of love that inspired such contempt and provoked such persecution in the Roman world. If we really are headed into Negative World, the persecution heaped on “He Gets Us” may be but a taste of things to come.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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