Of the many weird, cringeworthy, or confusing ads to run in the Super Bowl on Sunday, one stood out as especially eyeroll-inducing: a footwashing ad from the “He Gets Us” campaign. The commercial flashed a series of images of people washing another person’s feet, with most offering an attention-grabbing role reversal of oppressor and oppressed: A cop washing a young Black man’s feet, a white woman serving a migrant, and, for the one that made me guffaw the loudest, an anti-abortion protester kneeling before a presumed patient of a family planning clinic. “Jesus didn’t teach hate,” reads the tagline as an INXS cover plays. “He washed feet.”
The funders of the ad were obscure to the audience, leaving open the question: Are the people behind this simply naive? Are they the last remaining liberal Christians, trying to convince Donald Trump-obsessed evangelicals to stop the tidal wave of hate? Or is this ad a bait-and-switch, trying to lure unchurched people in with a phony message of love and acceptance, only to push them into joining up with the MAGA movement?
There’s no point in phony suspense here: It’s option number three. Jesus may have been against lying, but his wealthiest self-appointed champions in American society do not hesitate to use deceit to build up their army of MAGA Christianity.
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As many journalists have carefully detailed, the “He Gets Us” campaign is funded in large part by the Green family, who owns Hobby Lobby. Their life mission, besides getting rich by selling cheap tchotchkes, is to push their brand of far-right Christianity on the country. The Green-funded group that ran the “He Gets Us” ads last year has ., into anti-LGBTQ hate groups and organizations opposing women’s rights. The family has funded initiatives to put religious propaganda into public school classrooms, demanded the right to fire people for being gay, passed off forgeries as the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” stole antiquities from Iraq, and, of course, refused to comply with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions for fear of losing profits. They also successfully sued to block their employees from using their own health insurance to cover contraception.
Despite their opposition to birth control, however, Hobby Lobby isn’t too keen on women who have babies, either. When a Hobby Lobby employee fell pregnant in 2010, she alleges she was fired for asking for time off to have the baby. Losing your job is the Christian “compassion” the people behind the Super Bowl ads have on offer.
The Greens have been upfront about their donations to the “He Gets Us” campaign, but other donors remain anonymous. That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the layers of deceit the campaign is using in order to lure unsuspecting people with the appealing but false promise of love and acceptance offered in the ads. The group behind the ads, for instance, is the newly formed Come Near. The far-right Servant Foundation ran it last year. This shift in management not-so-coincidentally allows the campaign to further conceal its funding and leadership because its tax documents aren’t yet publicly available.
The sleaziness gets even worse if one goes to the “He Gets Us” website. On the FAQ sheet, they claim “Jesus loves gay people and Jesus loves trans people.” That could lead queer people to falsely believe that they will find affirmation from this group. In reality, as the anti-LGBTQ donation record suggests, this is that game right-wing Christians play where they say “loving” queer people means telling them they are sinners who need to give up their “lifestyle.”
The site also offers a chance to be “connected with someone near you who can help you learn more about Jesus and his life or get plugged into a group where you can bring your questions about life and faith.” But when I clicked the link, it did not draw up a searchable list of churches or Bible study groups a person could research on their own before reaching out. Instead, the user is asked to fill out a form and told someone will reach out to them. That is a giant red flag. There’s no way for a user to know who this information is going to. Instead, they’re going to be contacted by a person whose affiliations and agenda are hidden and who is likely to use high-pressure sales techniques to manipulate a person who was lonely enough to click these links in the first place.
This has all the hallmarks of what psychology experts call “spiritual abuse,” which is where a person’s longing for faith or higher meaning is used as a weapon to control them. I’ve been interviewing experts on this topic for an upcoming investigative report, and repeatedly, they emphasize that high-control religions often use bait-and-switch techniques to bamboozle vulnerable people. First the person is subjected to “love bombing,” where they are repeatedly told they are safe and cared for now that they’ve joined this community. Once they’ve become emotionally dependent on the church or group, however, they are bullied and degraded. If they’re queer, they’re told they’re going to hell unless they try (and invariably fail) to change who they fundamentally are. If they’re female, they’re told that their duty is to give up on their ambitions and even self-esteem, in order to be a “helpmeet” for a man.
There can be little doubt that is exactly the switcheroo that is going on here, which is why there are so many layers of obfuscation around who is behind the “He Gets Us” campaign. For someone who sees the ads and isn’t aware of the malicious politics of the people behind it, the packaging is quite appealing. It’s easy to see how queer people, young women, or progressives could think this is the faith community for them, only to find out long after they’ve been recruited that, no, it’s actually just the same right-wing Christianity they’ve been avoiding. The tactic is to get them in so deep that, by the time they figure that out, they’re too afraid of losing community to leave.
Evangelicals claim to believe in the “truth and the light,” and yet here they are, using duplicitous techniques borrowed from the world of con artists. But this is sadly not surprising, in an era where white evangelicals have convinced themselves they’re at war with the larger culture. The framework of “holy war” creates permission to violate all sorts of moral codes. Over 60% of white evangelicals back Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, and nearly one-third say they believe political violence is justified to get their way. (Odds are that the real number is much higher, but there’s a reluctance to admit as much to a pollster.) White evangelicals feel entitled to use lies and violence in order to gain political power. So of course they are fine with using deception to trick more people into becoming warriors for MAGA Christ.