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The 'He Gets Us' campaign promotes Jesus. But who's behind it — and what's the goal?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

He gets us. That's a tagline that's been popping up in banner ads online, on highway billboards and soon in Super Bowl commercials. The he is Jesus Christ. And the ads say things like Jesus was a refugee and Jesus was sick of hypocrisy, too. And while it's clear who the marketing campaign is about, the ads' goals and the money behind them are a little bit harder to figure out. We're joined now by Bob Smietana. He's a national reporter for Religion News Service, and he's been looking into this. Hey, Bob.

BOB SMIETANA: Hey, Scott. How are you today?

DETROW: I'm good. I just want to start with this - I mean, Jesus is a pretty well-known figure in the U.S. What is the goal for these ads? Who's the audience?

SMIETANA: Well, the audience is sort of what they call spiritually open skeptics, which are people who might be OK with religion but aren't really excited about Christians. And so they're trying to really focus people on here's this Jesus, and he's great, and he's a refugee, and he understands you. And I think part of the idea behind the ad is that people have had bad experiences with Christians, especially in the last few years. And so they want to try and get the focus off Christians and back to Jesus.

DETROW: Can you just give us some examples of what that could possibly mean - bad experiences, bad views of Christians?

SMIETANA: So you could get people who say that they're not accepted at their church because they're gay or because they're more politically liberal, right? They may not be accepted because of their race. Or they may have just seen a harshness because - over a failing. And we've had lots of fallouts with churches over abuse. We've had lots of fallout, you know, in the Catholic Church and more recently even among evangelicals, Southern Baptists. And so I think there's been a disappointment, like, wait. We don't think the way you treat us is what you say you believe. You say you love us, but we don't feel that love.

DETROW: Who's behind this - this campaign?

SMIETANA: One of the main funders is the Green family, which are the folks behind Hobby Lobby. But there's a whole bunch of evangelical folks who've kind of joined them. There's a group called The Signatry, which is a kind of - it's basically a foundation that collects money. But they've tried to be pretty discreet about who's funding it. In part, I think they don't want to turn people off or get people focused on them. They really want to keep people focused on Jesus.

DETROW: A lot of money behind this push, then. I mean, it costs an incredible amount of money to air an ad on the Super Bowl, doesn't it?

SMIETANA: It does. But these ads would cost - two of them would cost them about $20 million. The folks behind the campaign would say, well, you know, major brands spend a billion dollars a year in advertising. So, you know, they would say it's small, but it is a billion dollars. And I think spending that much money, again, is a kind of admission on their part that there's a problem. And, you know, and there is a problem for organized religion in America. It's declining, congregations are declining. And these ads, too, are way to chide their fellow Christians to say this is what Jesus is like and maybe we know it and maybe we're not acting like Jesus.

DETROW: I mean, we live in a world where every single personal choice you make gets grafted onto the political spectrum, and people use it to make inferences about where you are politically. It's interesting that the basic boiled-down aspects of the New Testament - loving your neighbor, helping out people who need help, you know, lending a hand to a stranger - can be something that's turned controversial and also viewed on that spectrum.

SMIETANA: Yes. These are interesting things that people think, the helping your neighbor or being loving could be suspect. But I think it goes back to the problem that American evangelicals in particular face is that their political ambitions and their deeply held religious beliefs and ethical beliefs are in conflict right now. So the things that will help them win politically will alienate people. So I heard a - recently I was doing reporting on another story. I heard a megachurch pastor. The first half the sermon was how terrible the liberals are. They're going to destroy your life, the first half. And then the second half was about their big evangelism campaign. And I thought, well, you have just told anyone who's not in your church that you don't like them.

DETROW: Yeah.

SMIETANA: And you hate them. They have already heard that. So they might hear your Jesus message. They are not going to be real receptive. If you tell people you hate them, they listen, and they leave, and they don't come back. And the ad campaign may not solve that.

DETROW: Even if it's a billion-dollar ad campaign.

SMIETANA: Even if it's a billion-dollar ad campaign.

DETROW: That's Bob Smietana. He's a reporter for Religion News Service and the author of "Reorganized Religion." Thanks so much for joining us.

SMIETANA: Oh, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sarah Handel
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.