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He Gets Us? The Religious-Political Machine Behind the Surprising Super Bowl Ad

A 2023 Super Bowl ad campaign offers a new twist on the longstanding Evangelical effort to employ the tools of mass media.

By Erin Simmonds|February 16, 2023

Over 100 million people watched the Super Bowl this Sunday. Many viewers were surprised, though, by two commercials that ran during Sunday’s game. One of these ads, from the HeGetsUs campaign, ran in the second half of the game. In the ad, there’s a thumping electronic beat and rhythmic claps, fueling a sense of momentousness. A series of images play. Scenes of conflict, often in familiar settings—shops, parking lots, schools, and restaurants.

The intensity of the scene increases, then the audio suddenly changes as the song fades away and we hear crowds, screams, and shouts. Sounds of violence and fear. We see a scene of angry protesters with signs that proclaim the Black Lives Matter slogan “I can’t breathe.” Second, just two photos later, we see a White man with a megaphone, wearing a Viking-style horned helmet like those worn in the Capitol Insurrection. The images come faster and faster, mere flashes amidst an audio assault. Then, silence. A siren wails in the distance. Words appear on a black screen: “Jesus loved the people we hate.”

White Evangelicals have always been adept at using the tools of commercial culture for evangelistic purposes. The twentieth-century Evangelical approach to mass media was to create wide networks of Christian mass media to rival, or at least parallel, secular/mainstream media. From John Roach Straton evangelizing atop a 1920s automobile to Christian influencers on TikTok, Evangelicals have exerted social influence by appropriating media culture and using it to evangelistic ends.

The HeGetsUs campaign is the newest entrant into a decades-long contest for the souls of America, but it’s got an unusual twist: an intentionally non-ideological, non-partisan appeal for unity and commonality in Jesus, with a focus not on his messianic unicity but on his embrace of American collectivity (the us in Jesus). The HeGetsUs campaign explained their “agenda” 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…. The more ideologically defensive we become, the more we are willing to sacrifice things like kindness, patience, and the respect and dignity of others for the sake of victory.”

We don’t know who is funding HeGetsUs– the site claims that donors wish to be anonymous “because the story isn’t about them, and they don’t want the credit.” That said, billionaire David Green (founder of Hobby Lobby craft stores) has said he is a donor. Tracing the money behind this multimillion-dollar campaign reveals a tension between HeGetsUs’s message of unity and love in Jesus and the social, political, and legal operations of a multibillion-dollar network of conservative Evangelicals.

As Jacobin first reported, the HeGetsUs campaign is a subsidiary of The Signatry, a donor-advised fund.  Essentially a clearinghouse for donations, The Signatry is a major player in the Evangelical philanthropy landscape—in 2020, Signatry managed nearly $1 billion of donor funds and gave out nearly $400 million in grants to over 1,500 charities. The Signatry “take[s] extra steps to ensure charitable dollars are aligned with values that reflect the Kingdom of God.” Donors can give grants to their preferred charities or receive charity recommendations from The Signatry. Notably, The Signatry reserves the right to reject a charity "that does not meet our granting policy,” though the granting policy is not reported on the site.

So, where do the funds facilitated by The Signatry end up? The ties between The Signatry and the Hobby Lobby family run deep—as tracing the money shows. The Signatry owns over $186 million in historical artifacts which are often loaned out to the Museum of the Bible, the museum founded by the Green family that has come under scrutiny for both owning illegal artifacts and presenting whitewashed accounts of history. The Signatry’s founder, Bill High, has also co-authored several books with David Green.

Tax records indicate that, in addition to supporting Green family causes, millions of dollars are channeled to a broader network of antiabortion advocacy groups and pro-life pregnancy crisis centers. The Signatry also facilitated $50 million in 2020 to the National Christian Foundation (NCF), another (multibillion-dollar) donor-advised fund that supports Christian philanthropy. Together, The Signatry and NCF have facilitated over $20 million in grants to conservative legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). When a donor-advised fund like The Signatry facilitates the donation, the donor backing the gift remains anonymous, allowing for a network of anonymous wealthy conservative Christians to channel money to various conservative causes, creating a shell game of wealth and power.

The Signatry’s connection to the Hobby Lobby and ADF is notable because of the impact these groups have had in the last decade. Hobby Lobby v. Burwell (2014) created exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious grounds. ADF has led the charge to allow Christian businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). ADF aims to push this further, arguing a case that, if successful, would allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples on free speech grounds (303 Creative LLC v. Elenis). The potential ramifications of a decision in ADF’s favor are enormously dangerous for civil rights, allowing discrimination for any number of reasons.

ADF also helped write the Mississippi antiabortion law at issue in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and worked on Mississippi’s legal team, fighting to overturn Roe v. Wade. As commentators have argued, the overruling of Roe v. Wade will have, and is having, devastating effects for millions of Americans, particularly minority and low-income women. The loss of the right to an abortion threatens the life and liberty of countless women. 

The HeGetsUs campaign urges people to find commonality in Jesus and overcome ideological divides. The reality is that the campaign is tied to a political-religious machine of wealthy conservative Christians who have financed legal crusades to strip away the rights of millions of Americans, based solely on ideological commitments.

HeGetsUs wants to blame “the culture wars” for “pitting us in ideological battles, amplifying hateful moments.” But, the campaign is guilty of relativizing political differences, equating movements like Black Lives Matter with the January 6th Insurrection and asking viewers to let go of their hatred in the name of Jesus. This is a false moral equivalency. The deeply insidious feature of this both sides-ism 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.

HeGetsUs argues that the culture wars create ideological battles—that “it’s systemic. It’s diabolical. And it works.” Its ad suggests that unity in Jesus will miraculously atone for an attempted coup, and that opponents of Black Lives Matter have equally valid positions as those fighting for racial justice. There are, of course, systemic problems in America, but HeGetsUs should own up to its own role in fomenting culture wars rather than relativizing the divides in American culture. This $20 million ad campaign, a new twist on the longstanding Evangelical effort to employ the tools of mass media, is an example of White conservative Protestants appealing to Jesus in order to appear above the nastiness of the political fray, when the entire enterprise is thoroughly political and enormously consequential.

Image by Alberico Bartoccini on Unsplash

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Erin Simmonds

Erin Simmonds is a PhD student in Religions in America at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a JD student at the University of Chicago Law School. Her research focuses on the intersection of American Christianity and American law. She is currently working on a dissertation project highlighting the role of Protestantism in historical antiabortion movements and suggesting new legal avenues for pro-choice advocates.