The “He Gets Us” Christian Super Bowl ads — and the backlash to them — explained 

Why “He Gets Us” doesn’t get us.

The “He Gets Us” Christian Super Bowl ads — and the backlash to them — explained 0

An image from the polarizing “He Gets Us” ad campaign depicts an anti-abortion protester washing the feet of a pregnant clinic visitor. Art by Julia Fullerton-Batten / via YouTube Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What would Jesus do? The answer is more debatable than you might expect, at least according to the highly polarized reactions to a controversial Super Bowl ad.

The “He Gets Us” ad campaign, in its second year running ads for the big game, has a simple goal, on the surface: It’s about getting Christians and non-Christians alike to think about how to love our neighbors, in the form of a quizzical message about washing feet. But how we should go about that — and whether it involves a $100 million marketing blitz — seems to be an incendiary topic, regardless of your position on the religious spectrum.

The ad, simply titled “Foot Washing,” depicts a variety of modern contexts, from immigrants exiting a bus to clashing protest groups, in which one person washes the feet of another. Why foot washing? Per the ad, it’s because “Jesus didn’t teach hate. He washed feet.” While this is technically biblically true, as depicted in the commercial, this is a far weirder ethos even than it sounds on paper.

The group’s website explains that all the photos for the shoot were staged by photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, whose work shares an affinity with the bizarre surrealism of AI-generated art. This ranges from the unnatural expressions on the faces of some of the subjects to the uncanny nature of the settings themselves.

For example, there’s “post-punk Riot Grrl having her feet washed in a crowded high school hallway by an anachronistic 1950s-era cheerleader.” There’s “confused pregnant woman getting her feet washed outside of a family planning clinic by a pissed-off looking anti-abortion protester.”

It ends with what I can only describe as “limp-wristed androgynous roller skater having their feet washed by a burly ex-con priest, against a thrilling beachside sunset.” All of this is set to an equally puzzling soundtrack, a cover of INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”; at one point, the words “I was standing, you were there” pairs with an exhausted immigrant literally standing over a stranger washing her feet.

In other words, while the clear goal of the ad is to bring people together across different life experiences and backgrounds, the result is a disjointed, chaotic dartboard effect that raises far more questions than it provides answers.

Who exactly is “us”?

For starters, despite the campaign’s ostensible goal of bridging gaps across a range of identities and experiences, each image instead reasserts an uncomfortable “us/them” dynamic between the foot-washer and the washee.

In eight of the ad’s 12 images, the person doing the foot-washing is a put-together, cisgender-presenting white person, some middle- and some working-class, washing the feet of their presumed opposite: an oil driller washing the feet of a clean air protester; a Gen Z-er washing the feet of an aging relative. (One interesting exception: an interracial friendship between two older men who share the same foot tub.)

We’re supposed to read this as a straightforward message of opposites uniting despite their differences. But because there’s a uniformity in the depiction of who is doing the act versus who gets their feet washed, the overall impression is one of performativity rather than sincerity.

As North Carolina pastor and self-described “recovering evangelical” Solomon Missouri wrote for MSNBC, the ad could be easily read as “a quick way to put a veneer of acceptance over Christian communities that find it difficult to live out that message of acceptance in real and tangible ways” — in other words, as a less-than-subtle way of reifying hypocrisy rather than critiquing it.

The purported aim of the group is to eschew the modern-day conservative view of Jesus with a more universalized depiction of him, reminding us all that Christ loved everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, or creed. They’re not even diffident about it. From the “He Gets Us” FAQ:

Many of those who represent Jesus have made people in the LGBTQ+ community feel judged and excluded. And others in the Jesus community have simply ignored their stories and lived experiences.

So let us be clear in our opinion. Jesus loves gay people and Jesus loves trans people.

Unconditional love and acceptance from modern Christians? We love to see it. Yet, as several other outlets have noted, the “He Gets Us” campaign has ties to organizations that offer anything but love and acceptance toward the people the campaign purports to reach.

(If you were waiting for the other unwashed foot to drop, now’s the moment.)

It’s not that the goals of this ad campaign aren’t noble. If a similar Christian ad campaign emerged from a group whose larger aims were actually about upholding and embracing poor, underrespresented, and underprivileged people from all walks of life, without trying to condemn intrinsic parts of their identities and experiences, most viewers would probably cheer for them. Many would probably want to support them, regardless of their own religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s going on here.

The origins of the “He Gets Us” ad, briefly explained

In fact, He Gets Us LLC is a former subsidiary of the Servant Foundation, a powerful evangelical nonprofit that recently changed its public-facing name to the Signatry.

He Gets Us changed parent organizations in 2023, shifting to fall under the supervision of a different nonprofit called Come Near. In an email to Vox, a spokesperson for the campaign explained, “The separation from The Servant Foundation allows He Gets Us to better pursue its future and to harness the increased interest and momentum of planned activities that reinforce the idea that Jesus has something to offer to everyone – Christians, non-Christians, and those who are not sure what to believe.”

Those ties to the Servant Foundation certainly drew some attention from critics when the He Gets Us ads first came out. Several outlets noted that the Servant Foundation was one of the biggest backers of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), currently one of the most powerful and terrifying legal funds in the country if you’re gay, trans, a minority, and/or a woman.

The ADF has systematically and successfully orchestrated extremist courtroom challenges across the country, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the precedent-upsetting Masterpiece Cakeshop case that ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. It’s also since been funding anti-trans and anti-gay legislation across the country.

Both the Servant Foundation and Come Near also have ties to the family of Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green, who is notorious for pushing anti-LGBTQ policies. Green’s son Mart Green serves on the board of Come Near, and the other two board members serve as executives of OneHope, an evangelical Christian organization funded by the Greens and by Hobby Lobby directly.

It’s unclear how cutting ties with the Servant Foundation has made a difference to the aims of the “He Gets Us” campaign.

In a 2022 interview with Glenn Beck, Green articulated the goals of “He Gets Us” in an interesting way, shifting the inclusive messaging to the more blunt “He loves who we hate.” The creators of the ad might disagree, but the subtext of the images in “Foot-Washing” suggest a performative rather than substantive embrace of “who we hate.”

That was only reinforced by the conservative backlash to the ad. Many seemed to be offended by the mere presentation of minorities in the ad, with some blasting it as “woke.” Their objections seemed to deliberately miss the ad’s point — that we should all try harder to love one another — in favor of complaining that the campaign’s emphasis on diversity was pernicious and that it sinfully (?!) portrayed Jesus as “a divine social worker.”

While left-wing media outlets scoured Come Near’s ties to far-right groups, conservatives scrutinized the ad and the organization for being too leftist. Some attacked Come Near’s CEO, Ken Calwell, for having his pronouns listed on his LinkedIn — a move many viewed as shorthand for a perceived hidden left-wing agenda. Others on the right criticized the themes of the ad, arguing that Jesus would never wash the feet of just anyone; “it’s not as though he was opening a foot-washing franchise,” one viewer tweeted.

Some Christians and former evangelicals also expressed cynicism toward the surface-level goals of the ad. As Missouri noted, “spend[ing] millions of dollars for brand management” when marginalized people across the nation face rising levels of poverty, homelessness, and inflation isn’t exactly “consistent with the ethic of Christ.”

However much the campaign may want to divorce itself from the implications of trying to love one’s neighbor while also facilitating widespread legal campaigns in order to disenfranchise them, it’s not that simple. As one critic put it, “imagining Jesus as apolitical is itself a political decision.”

“The deeply insidious feature of this both sides-ism,” wrote Erin Simmonds for the University of Chicago’s Divinity School blog, “is that HeGetsUs can claim a moral high ground, above the ideological fray, while its benefactors fund campaigns that decimate the rights of Americans and entrench political divides.”

That’s why the campaign itself is destined to stop short of reaching the audiences it’s trying to target. Its targets on the left are wary of the sort of hollow proselytizing that claims to love the sinner while casting their intrinsic identity as something sinful. And its targets on the right are too busy viewing those on the left as something sinful to truly consider what it might mean to love them.

In other words, Christ may “get us.” But as long as the campaign emphasizes teaching the unsaved, un-(foot)-washed masses about the love of the divine, instead of demonstrating true empathy for all, it will always backfire.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *