During the Super Bowl, we witness the symbols of white Christian nationalism on full display.
We see everything from the ceremony around the National Anthem and images of waving Stars and Stripes. We may also encounter prayers to God and Jesus alongside behaviors of tribalism between team fans. Athleticism and Christianity have a strong history here in America.
Many of my friends who follow Jesus call this behavior “idolatry,” but for the white Christian nationalist, these characteristics of toughness, ruggedness, and individuality are essential traits of their Jesus. To them, Jesus is “Straight White American Super Jesus…tall and strong, fair and handsome, a warrior and fighter, a leader and an entrepreneur,” says sociologists Phillip S. Gorski and Samuel Perry in their book, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.
Bruce Barton, one of the founders of the BBDO advertising agency, is responsible for this depiction as it pertains to the NFL. His 1925 book, The Man Nobody Knows, claimed the Jesus of his childhood was a “sissified” person “weak and unhappy and glad to die…who went around for three years telling people not to do things.”
For Barton, this version of Jesus was unappealing to modern men. Instead, he sought to rebrand the “sissified” Jesus into a more masculine version, “a go-getting modern man. Life of the party. Athletic and strong. Quick-witted and charismatic. Compassionate and courageous…'founder of modern business’ who possessed ‘muscles hard as iron’ and ‘did not come to establish a theology but to lead a life.’” (Quote from Paul Putz for Christianity Today in his article, “Super Bowl Fans Don’t Need a Linebacker Jesus," published on February 8, 2023)
Scholars have labeled this phenomenon “muscular Christianity,” a depiction of Jesus that has attracted athletes and coaches over the years. This Jesus, because of his supposed athleticism and physical strength, has divined their purpose as sports professionals: they believe Jesus truly understands what they go through in preparation for the arena.
Organizations, like Athletes in Action (AIA) and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), perpetuated this rebrand for decades, culminating in a network of self-proclaimed Christian athletes who advertise this muscular Jesus type to the public.
This depiction isn’t any different than the Rambo-like portrayals of Donald Trump. Trump has become the Straight White Savior-like figure of white Christian nationalist dreams.
During the Super Bowl commercials this year, Jesus got another rebrand. It's called "He Gets Us," a $20 million advertising campaign showing a compassionate Jesus who accepts people on the fringes, too.
We didn’t need to spend $20 million to understand who Jesus is, but what’s more illuminating are the financial backers of this advertising campaign, The Servant Foundation.
The Servant Foundation is a Christian Conservative non-profit that has been instrumental in funding anti-abortion and anti-LGBT legislation initiatives in the U.S. They are largely responsible for the push to support businesses that discriminate against our LGBTQIA family. A couple of examples of this come to mind: the Colorado web designer who refused to work for same-sex couples on their wedding websites, as well as Jack Phillips, the Christian cake decorator who wouldn’t make cakes for same-sex couples. All of this, despite Colorado law stipulating that businesses open to the public must offer equal access, regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
The list of overall donors for “He Gets Us” has remained anonymous except for Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green. Hobby Lobby famously won a Supreme Court case in 2014 that gave employers the license to revoke birth control coverage for employees. (I mean, birth control helps in stopping the creation of babies and therefore abortions. Even in the Old Testament of the Bible, there is a story of a man “pulling out” to not impregnate, which is one type of birth control method.)
Most of us can read the Bible to understand who Jesus is, but why do you think a Conservative/Republican organization like the Servant Foundation must spend millions to share its message of seemingly unconditional love and acceptance? In my opinion, they’re covering up for the bad press and imagery they’ve brought to the Christian religion itself — of bigotry, racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, of hatred toward “the other” — the very people who aren’t white and Christian like them.
Here is the campaign’s explanation for its motivation:
“How did the story of a man who taught and practiced unconditional love, peace, and kindness; who spent his life defending the poor and the marginalized; a man who even forgave his killers while they executed him unjustly — whose life inspired a radical movement that is still impacting the world thousands of years later — how did this man’s story become associated with hatred and oppression for so many people?”
Let’s not beat around the bush: these Christian Conservatives (or Republicans) are the very people responsible for associating Jesus’s story with hatred and oppression.
If we truly want to rediscover Jesus’s unconditional love, we can stop the skewed “Biblical truth” at the foundation of the white Christian nationalist’s discrimination toward non-white, non-Christian folks. Maybe — just maybe — we can start by supporting policies that benefit everyone, including our LGBTQIA family, people of color, women, children and families unjustly held in ICE captivity, and undocumented immigrants who have been raised in America since babies. We can stop electing leaders who aren’t self-interested, racist, and judgmental, like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
Perhaps these individuals — these “Christians” — can start considering political candidates who might not identify as Christians but support Jesus’s teachings in their policy and work instead. Take, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Now, “He Gets Us” doesn’t plan to stop at Super Bowl 2023. The Servant Foundation wants to infiltrate our entire marketplace with this rebrand of Jesus. Jason Vanderground, the president of the branding group responsible for “He Gets Us,” told Christianity Today the goal is to invest a billion dollars, which is just the first phase.
I find this frightening.
What I’m more interested in — and I hope you are, too — is seeing what these Christian Conservatives can do “in their actions” to reverse the systemic oppression they’ve placed on many people. Jesus commanded us to love, not divide and quell.
I want to see forgiveness for how they’ve treated immigrants, black people, indigenous folks, our Hispanic communities, women, trans men and women, non-binary persons, and same-sex couples.
Before that, I can’t begin to take them seriously, even with a billion dollars of changed imagery and marketing pizzazz, because beneath it all is still hatred and oppression.