Christianity has a brand problem. If it were a corporation, brand managers would be scrambling to scrub public image—maybe by greenwashing or with corporate diversity trainings or by renaming their product, say natural gas instead of methane, or by coming up with a new catchy slogan. Or they might actually do something substantive, like ceasing to “gift” baby formula to poor moms or to use child labor in their factories. There are many ways to polish brand.
Christianity’s recently launched He Gets US campaign—millions of people got a dose during the Superbowl—tells us two things: 1. Conservative Evangelical Christians care about their brand problem. 2. Some major Christian donors have decided, to the tune of $100 million apparently, to go with the greenwashing strategy rather than substantive change. And that combination provides a possible avenue for fighting back against some of the ugly objectives and tactics of the Religious Right.
The people paying for this ad campaign are the same ones promoting homophobia, advocating against reproductive healthcare for women, and funding politicians to protect the good old pecking orders: rich over poor, men over women, white people over everyone with more melanin.
Back when the world and I were young, Evangelical Christians were a politically diverse group. But Republican strategists recognized them as a potential political voting block. Hierarchical social structures within churches meant the strategists had to recruit only Church leaders, and those leaders would bring along their congregations. It worked for the Republican party, but at an enormous cost to Christianity as an institution. That is because right wing operatives were spending down Christianity’s good name by merging its brand with their own. The more Christianity came to be associated with ugly political priorities—and then crass power grab-‘em-by-the-pussies—the more young people fled the Church. By the millions. (Tangentially, Islam faces a similar brand problem and deconversion pattern wherever the Mullahs wield political force. Almost half of Iranians say they used to be religious.)
Losing customers by the millions would be a problem for any corporate body—especially one with a product that people realize they don’t need when they actually take a good look. When there are better options, in this case secularism, people rarely go back to the same-old-same-old. The financial impact of deconversion is potentially huge. The Mormon Church may coerce tithes with visits from elders who review a family’s finances, but most protestant and Catholic sects rely on more subtle social and emotional pressures. Either way, market share requires mindshare. You have to get people in the door before you can pass the basket.
But this isn’t merely a financial calculus. At some point, brand damage becomes a threat to identity. Evangelicals are evangelical. It’s part of the ideology. Go into all the world and make disciples of every creature. Unlike Judaism or Hinduism, Christianity is a proselytizing religion. Proselytizing (ok, coupled with colonization and holy wars) has been the strategy that allowed Christianity to spread across the planet. Missionaries may not explicitly recognize that they are recruiting paying customers who will trade cash for club benefits and afterlife services, but they do recognize that “harvesting souls” is a central commandment of their faith. For many, this mandate—called the Great Commission—is their version of praying five times facing Mecca. For some, it becomes an underlying feature in virtually every relationship: All non-Christians are potential converts; friendliness becomes friendship missions; feeding the poor becomes first-and-foremost a path to winning their souls. Evangelicals are a sales force, and as their brand becomes more and more soiled, it gets harder to do their job.
In need of a savior
Having spent down Christianity’s brand, the patriarchs of the religious right are uncomfortable with how far that has gone—the image, that is, not the substance. Most Americans used to think of the Bible as The Good Book, but not anymore. Most Americans used to think of Christianity (and religion more broadly) as benign, but not anymore. Jesus, though—the image of Jesus is relatively untainted. Even those who don’t buy into the idea of him being the perfect human sacrifice who saves our souls (Are you washed in the blood?) tend to believe that he was a good, wise, loving man. They think we know a lot more about him than we do, and what they think we know is positive. So, it totally makes sense that a $100 million rebranding and recruiting effort would center on the person of Jesus. Much of Christian theology is nasty, and the Iron Age texts in the Bible contradict what we now know about science, anthropology and—well, pretty much every other field of modern scholarship. This iconic personal Jesus is all they have left.
The fact that conservative Christians are spending $100 million on marketing Jesus means they are bad off and know it. It means they recognize the deterioration in their brand, and they feel desperate to turn it around. They have made the mistake of letting that desperation slip out, and those of us who would rather not return to the good old dark ages when the Church ruled the world can exploit that vulnerability. Their product sucks, and we need to keep saying so in every way possible. We need to make sure the general public keeps associating Christianity with what Christians are doing, not what they are saying: Those anti-abortion centers that dupe women into keeping pregnancies aren’t Crisis Pregnancy Centers, they are Church Pregnancy Centers. Fetal personhood isn’t a philosophical debate, it’s theology. Denying rights to queer folks and women isn’t conservative, it’s theocracy.
When people do ugly things that are motivated by religious dogma, we should name what’s going on. Conservative Christians are telling us that they can’t afford more brand damage. And maybe if their bad works keep getting exposed, they will realize that the answer isn’t Jesus-washing; it’s substantive change.
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