Using sports to market Christ has a long history, but Sunday’s iteration might skip the muscles for heart.
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 The image of Jesus had gotten tied up in narrow controversies and outdated modes of understanding.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 …