Last night, there was a big football game on. Incredibly, this was the first year I was actually more excited for the game than I was for the commercials (though admittedly Usher's star-studded halftime show also piqued my interest). It's no secret that I'm not much of a sportsball fan, but all self-respecting Swifties were required to tune in to count how many times the cameras panned to her cheering in the Kelce family suite. It's in our contract. We are also required to enthusiastically join her in rooting for... I'm going to say... the red team?
Anyway, during the game I watched with a mixture of interest, inspiration, and gut-wrenching disgust a one minute advertisement from the "He Gets Us" campaign, featuring images of mismatched individuals -- children of God, all -- washing each other's feet. The concept is Christlike. The execution leaves something to be desired. The motives are more than worthy of questioning.
In the heat of the moment, I fired off one simple Tweet... err... Thread(?)... alerting folks to some of the behind-the-scenes truths of the organizations and funders responsible for the ads, which, from the surface of things, seem innocuous enough.
While the social media algorithms prevailed in my post being received by an echo chamber that fully embraced my hastily typed opinions, and I successfully made it to bed without stumbling into any social media barfights, this morning I awoke to see the discourse had continued in other settings. Notably, a counter-argument had taken hold online, with some expressing skepticism about the "virtue signaling" offered up by many Mainline Protestant clergy.
I admit that phrase -- virtue signaling -- tends to rub me the wrong way even when, as in this instance, it's not directly aimed at me. This is because the phrase is often intended, heard, or received in a derogatory or pejorative manner. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines it like this: "the act or practice of conspicuously displaying one's awareness of and attentiveness to political issues, matters of social and racial justice, etc., especially instead of taking effective action." Google's built-in dictionary labels the phrase "derogatory."
Insofar as the arguments against the advertisements regarded the foolish waste of money (e.g., "think of how many poor people that $7 million would have fed!"), I tend to agree on the premise of virtue signaling, even if I'm unlikely to use that phrase myself. The ability to bring a Christlike, inclusive message to the biggest audience of the year unfortunately requires lots of money in a Capitalist society, and while the NFL talks a big talk in its anti-bullying campaigns, let's be clear: they'd never donate the ad space for a message on reconciliation and inclusion. Money talks.
But my concern, and the concern of most of the other posts in my algorithmically-induced echo chamber, relates not to the frivolous use of dollars, but to the shadowy funders who donated those dollars in the first place.
Though the advertisements only cited "He Gets Us, LLC" in the fine print of the ads, a quick search finds more of the backstory about this organization and the simple web that ties it directly to more nefarious purposes. This is where the contradictions and inconsistencies become untenable for me to stomach. Though the ads ended with a powerful statement -- "Jesus didn't teach hate." -- the same organization with ties for funding this ad have also donated tens of millions of dollars to the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Hate Group. Avid readers of the headlines, especially those whose lives have been directly impacted, will recognize the ADF as a legal action network whose positions in numerous state and supreme court arguments are leading to the death and destruction of women, LGBTQIA+ folks, religious minorities, refugee communities, and many other oppressed and marginalized groups. Right under the surface of what is apparently intended to be a feel-good advertisement for reconciliation and inclusion is a far darker truth.
So, as a Christian pastor, I want to be completely clear about where I stand. I'm unable to tolerate -- let alone celebrate -- the image of a transgender person, a refugee at the border, etc. being co-opted for what appears to be a reconciling advertisement while at the same time the rights and liberties of transgender folks, refugees, etc. are being legislated out of existence by the likes of the ADF and their funders. Furthermore, I'm also deeply troubled by the "mismatched pairs" displayed in the artistic display of washing feet. Pointing to the example that speaks most directly to me as a bi/queer pastor, the ad subtly placed the image of a queer person against that of a religious leader, as if to suggest the two would naturally be seen as mutually exclusive. This gives us a much better idea of the theological lens with which the funders actually view the world, no?
Can I appreciate the concept of washing someone's feet as particularly Christlike? Sure. But I can't, in good conscience, do so without also calling out the bait-and-switch style of these ads, and the attempted whitewashing of the views held by dangerous organizations (they seem to be trying to avoid this critique by spinning the initiative off into its own nonprofit). I won't, in good conscience, rejoice in the good this commercial might offer to the world without also humbly standing on the frontlines of the very sorts of legal fights those organizations are funding and pushing through the courts.
Bottom line: Jesus didn't teach hate... but I suspect the funders of these ads and their respective organizations do. If questioning the motives of these advertisements is a form of virtue signaling, I guess I'm going to have to learn to wear that as a badge of honor.
PS: I've also seen some backlash from conservative evangelical corners of Christianity complaining that the advertisements were spotlighting a "Woke Jesus." Now, that's just hilarious!
I'm a husband, father, news junkie, theatre lover, enneagram enthusiast, bi advocate, amateur foodie, wannabe barista, and an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
All works by Rev. TJ Remaley on this website are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This blog is maintained personally by me and does not necessarily represent the views of any congregation I have served. Every effort is made to give proper attribution for quotations, images, and other media used on this page.