This year during the Super Bowl, all eyes will be on Jesus—at least during the two ads sponsored by the He Gets Us campaign.
Aiming to make Jesus more relatable through a massive public relations campaign, He Gets Us has already received plenty of attention and criticism. What fascinates me, as a historian of American sports and Christianity, is its continuity with the past. By choosing the Super Bowl as the moment for its “largest splash” to date, the He Gets Us campaign is standing in line with Christian marketing efforts that date back a century, while also attempting to chart something new.
One hundred years ago, American Christian leaders worried about polarization and irrelevance in a rapidly changing culture. Division threatened to split churches, with modernists and fundamentalists battling for control of denominations. A surging white Christian nationalism, embodied in the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, wedded a white supremacist understanding of American identity with Christian language and symbols. Meanwhile, many young Americans opted out of formal religion altogether, showing more interest in baseball games and prizefight boxing than church.
Into this moment of crisis stepped a leader in the advertising industry named Bruce Barton.
The son of a preacher, Barton looked at the Christian anxieties of his age through the eyes of his marketing expertise and saw a public relations problem. The image of Jesus had gotten tied up in narrow controversies and outdated modes of understanding. Americans, particularly men, did not find him compelling; Christ did not speak to their needs.
Barton’s solution? Write a book that could demonstrate the human Jesus’ relevance to a changing culture. Focus on Jesus as a relatable guide to modern living and not a divisive figure making rigid doctrinal claims. Put this “real” Jesus—a Jesus concerned with the everyday tasks of ordinary people—in front of the American public and let them respond.
With an assist from marketing tactics honed through Barton’s day job on Madison Avenue, The Man Nobody Knows became a cultural phenomenon and a bestseller soon after its publication in 1925. In its attempt to use marketing methods to present a human Jesus who transcends division, we can see seeds of today’s He Gets Us campaign.
Barton’s characterization of Jesus was significant for another reason: It provided a template that continues to influence Christian engagement with sports. Part of a broader movement at the turn of the 20th century that scholars have labeled “muscular Christianity,” Barton was concerned that the Christian faith had lost its appeal with men.
The Jesus he had learned about as a child, he wrote in the introduction to The Man Nobody Knows, was a “sissified” Christ, one who was “weak and unhappy and glad to die” and who “went around for three years telling people not to do things.”
In contrast to that figure, Barton put forward a Jesus who lived like a go-getting modern man. Life of the party. Athletic and strong. Quick-witted and charismatic. Compassionate and courageous. Barton’s Jesus was the “founder of modern business” who possessed “muscles hard as iron” and “did not come to establish a theology but to lead a life.”
While scholars and intellectuals at the time dismissed The Man Nobody Knows, its influence permeated popular culture long after the critics faded from the scene. It resonated with coaches and athletes in particular, in large part because they felt a new sense that their vocations mattered to God, that they could say of Jesus, “He gets us.”
“I knew I’d found the Jesus I always prayed was there,” one Christian coach explained after reading the book. “It was a relief that the one I worshiped was a man in every sense of the word. He was competitive. He had goals. He was strong physically and didn’t back down from mental and spiritual competition.”
Organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA) helped advance this view of a muscular Jesus. As they expanded their reach throughout the sports world after the 1950s, they forged a network of Christian athletes who took comfort in a Jesus who understood the athletic experience—and then they projected that Jesus back out to the American public, serving as advertising agents in their own right.
“He would be an aggressive and tremendous competitor,” Miami Dolphins lineman Norm Evans wrote of Jesus in 1971. “Under the toughness there would be a kind, understanding, patient nature; all the good qualities would be woven in.”
By the 1970s, when the Super Bowl became a major television event, every NFL team had a handful of Christian players like Evans willing to use the platform of the game to sell Jesus to a wide audience. And those efforts have only grown over the years as media coverage of the Super Bowl has expanded and as the Christian subculture in the NFL has matured. There’s not a year that goes by without a player thanking Jesus in some way before and after the big game.
Seen in that light, the He Gets Us campaign is simply offering a new angle on a Super Bowl tradition. By associating Christ with the success and celebrity of prominent athletes, Bruce Barton’s vision from the 1920s marches on today.
There is, however, a key difference worth noting, and here history can help us once again. The Jesus on offer by He Gets Us is not closely tied to Barton’s muscular Jesus. Instead, he’s more likely to look like the Jesus presented in another influential book from the first half of the 20th century: Howard Thurman’s 1949 Jesus and the Disinherited.
Thurman wrote his book as a direct challenge to white Christian complicity in racism and the church’s tendency to favor those with influence and resources. “Too often,” he warned, “the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.”
He wanted to consider instead “what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.”
Thurman’s book became a central text for the growing civil rights movement, inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. and other key leaders. By speaking to the “poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed,” Thurman presented a Jesus who not only understood their pain but also had actually lived their plight.
Look at the homepage of the He Gets Us campaign, and this reliance (intentional or not) on Thurman’s vision seems clear. Ads focused on refugees, justice, inclusion, and poverty are prominently displayed. Here is a Jesus who sides with the underdog, who identifies with the marginalized.
In short, we have Howard Thurman’s Jesus presented using Bruce Barton’s methods—and, when the ads run at the Super Bowl, at an event that usually promotes something closer to Barton’s Jesus.
How can these two visions be reconciled?
It would likely be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But we might see glimpses of possibility if we focus on the vulnerability and precarity of the athletic experience. The recent example of Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who collapsed on the field in January, leading to a public outpouring of prayer, is a case in point. Perhaps in the suffering and pressure that athletes face, we can see the need for a God who is near and space for a Jesus who stands with those whose backs are against the wall.
Still, the dominant values within sports culture continue to center the cult of success, the distribution of time, attention, and resources based on wins and performance. For Christians in athletic spaces and fans watching on television, Jesus can easily become a guide to achieving wealth, fame, and power rather than a king inviting us to cultivate the priorities and values of a different kingdom.
This is why, for all the skepticism we should have (and all the caveats I’ll make in a second), I see something different and potentially helpful in the He Gets Us ads.
Christians have always viewed the Super Bowl as an opportunity to link Jesus with the ultimate spectacle of American success. Like Bruce Barton, we’ve worked hard to make sure that people associate winning players and winning teams and winning personalities with the Christian faith.
To the extent that the He Gets Us campaign uses the Super Bowl to draw our attention to Jesus’ presence with people on the margins, it provides a helpful nudge.
It’s only a nudge. And it’s only a marketing campaign. It cannot disciple people. It cannot alleviate the material conditions that give rise to inequalities and injustice in our day. It’s money that may well have been put to better use.
But in its own limited way it just might provide a welcome new direction in marketing efforts that have long used sports to shape our understanding of Jesus.
Paul Emory Putz is assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Seminary.