Why Christianity Can’t Be Branded
By: Rev. Dr. Jeffrey A. Schooley
“Branding” as a marketing strategy dates back to post-World War Two America, but its literal origins extend back to 2,000 BCE in Egypt. This first form of branding involved a literal burning of a distinctive mark into the flesh of cattle to denote ownership. Since cows, for example, can all look more or less the same, the brand on their body was a means of differentiation. Even in today’s more figurative sense of “branding,” this aspect of visual cues to denote ownership and differentiation still persists.
These are important facts to hold onto as we consider the first year of the “He Gets Us” campaign – a multi-media campaign funded by various, conservative Christian sources (most notably, the owner of Hobby Lobby) – that debuted during March Madness in 2022, but probably saw its greatest press and interest a couple of weeks ago when the campaign organizers spent a reported $20 million on three, 30-second Super Bowl ads.
I’m not particularly interested in wading into the politics of this campaign. If you’re already aware of the campaign, likely you have your own thoughts about it and its politics. If you haven’t seen it or haven’t really been interested in the debates around it, I’m not going to try to convince you to join the conversation. I’m only raising this example up because it provides me an entry point into a pastoral question about Jesus, the Church, and what it means to be a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. (If you didn’t hear/read my sermon on witnessing from February 19, 2023, you might do well to engage with that first, as both that sermon and this article were written in close proximity to one another, and each piece subtly informs the other).
There’s already been enough ink spilt over other (read: better) ways that $20 million could be spent (and, for that matter, the reported $1 billion pledged to this campaign over the next three years!). I generally agree, but don’t have to retread those arguments, if for no other reason than they make me grumpy. Instead, I want us to think theologically about how we witness to our faith in the 21st century, since that is a topic that implicitly presents itself to you every single day you wake up.
My grumpiness with this particular campaign, which I think is good only as a foil against which to understand the actual work of witness we’re called to, comes first from the sense of ownership inherent to “branding.” To begin, then, I ask you to remember your baptism. If you were baptized as a baby, remember the most recent baptism you’ve seen. In baptism, the pastor says, “You are a child of God, marked and sealed as Christ’s own.” There is a hierarchy of ownership (though that is a crass word devoid of love, grace, and mercy) in baptism, but it is not we who own Christ, but rather we who are owned “as Christ’s own.” This campaign, however, puts the flaming iron of the modern media to Christ’s flesh rather than remembering the cool, purifying waters by which we are claimed as children of God. The difference could not be starker or greater.
My grumpiness also extends from the differentiation that branding is supposed to pursue. Differentiation is important in modern markets. It’s probably even important in your own life. (I mean, my household very much has a preferred toilet paper, as I’m assuming yours does too). We like to know when we’re getting (to use a personally important example) Dr. Pepper and not Mr. Pibb. (The latter is fine, but it clearly needs more schooling to be as tasty as Dr. Pepper!). However, in the case of this “He Gets Us” campaign, differentiation raises two important questions. First, from what or whom is Jesus being differentiated? Second, is it oxymoronic to use a tool of differentiation to pursue a message of solidarity?
Working backward in those questions, the entire point of the “He Gets Us” campaign – from its words to its visuals to its score to its website – is to help viewers feel solidarity with Jesus. Yet solidarity is the opposite of differentiation. (I mean, I don’t want Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb having solidarity; I certainly wouldn’t want to mix the two in my glass!). The folly of this campaign is baked into the campaign itself.
Yet the more damning problem is found in that first question: from what or whom is Jesus being differentiated? It would not appear that the campaign wants you to understand that Jesus is different from Buddha, Apollo, Muhammad, Odin, Shango, Kounu, or any other past or present deity. It would appear, instead, that this campaign wants to differentiate Jesus from His Church, from Christians, from you and me.
Now, on one level, I’m compassionate to that appeal. I’ve been Christian long enough to know that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” lives in such a way to prove that claim. Hypocrisy is real, and is likely present to one degree or another in each of our lives. In this regard, Jesus is different from us, since He was both fully and perfectly human and God. We don’t get to make such claims.
However, none of those facts change this one: the Church does not exist by accident. We exist as the will and work of Jesus in the world. If you want to be cute about it, we are Jesus’ first and only “brand” in the world. The idea, then, that Jesus must be differentiated from the Church, which is Jesus’ “brand,” would actually make this campaign border on heresy. Add to this the aforementioned concerns about who owns whom and heresy is not too strong of a word.
But all of this is a lesson in what we are not meant to be. What we are meant to be – what our witness is supposed to look like – does take the form of solidarity with the world. After all, Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. God has already made God’s message clear in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is God’s message of solidarity, and it affords no differentiation. If a church isn’t aspiring to this same level of solidarity, it just simply isn’t a church, but a social club with a weird dues system.
Finally, permit me to grind an ax on the last of those Super Bowl ads, which featured the thesis: “Jesus loves the people we hate.” While this is undoubtedly true, it presumes something rather demonic about us – namely, it assumes that we all, inherently, hate someone. (Side note: Good advertising doesn’t tend to belittle the audience for the advertisement. I’m just a lowly, chubby pastor in a mid-sized church in the Midwest, but even I know that!). And while division, partisanship, and – sure – even hatred would seem to be a commonplace fact of American life (that threatens, perpetually, a focus on the common good), I do not for one minute think that people inherently have hate in their hearts. On the contrary, I think hate is cultivated by media platforms (looking at you, social media!) that intentionally utilizes algorithms meant to place inflammatory content in front of your eyes so as to extend our time on their platforms. That hate is constructed through mediums that the “He Gets Us” campaign is intentionally utilizing is a logical heresy. It also – to use the rhetoric of Jesus’ last national branding campaign – is not the answer to the question “What Would Jesus Do?” Jesus, after all, turned over the tables in the Temple when it became clear that those tables were detracting from the worship of God. Any thoughtful Christian would have to assume He would do much of the same with His Facebook account. Simply put, a campaign built on fostering solidarity cannot use divisive means to get there.
So, go forth and be the proof that God really does have solidarity with God’s creation. Approach each and every person – maybe, especially, keeping an eye out for those people who are too quickly looked past – as a living, breathing, loving extension of God’s solidarity with all. Let the “brand” of your baptism be experienced by all. The more we all do this, the more likely we’ll be able to reallocate those one billion dollars to more pressing needs.