(RNS) — Almost 20 years ago, in early 2005, I tagged along with a boyfriend to a Presbyterian church service on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I assumed it was a mainline Protestant church and didn’t bother to get any further information because I honestly didn’t care. I was a lapsed Episcopalian and, depending on which day you asked me, agnostic or atheist. I was just going to church to please my boyfriend.
Long story short, it was an evangelical church that sought to be “seeker friendly.” They led with the good stuff: Jesus was an immigrant, a radical when it came to treating women equally and a champion of the downtrodden. It was an intellectually stimulating format, including sermons that were laced with poetry, art references, philosophy and pop culture. I was intrigued, to say the least.
I was also vulnerable. A year earlier, my father had dropped dead of a heart attack at age 61, and my beloved grandmother had just passed away. I was feeling unmoored and anxious and was offered a framework to help make sense of a world that felt out of control and drained of meaning. I reached for the life preserver with no sense that this decision would drive me off course for nearly a decade.
I bring all this up because I recognized the same seeker-friendly tactics in Sunday’s “He Gets Us” Super Bowl ads that I experienced at my first evangelical church, and in others that followed. This matters because these ads direct you to a website that then directs you to a church community in your area where seeker-friendly framing surely awaits.
The campaign is arresting, portraying the pivotal figure of Christianity as an immigrant, a refugee, a radical, an activist for women’s rights and a bulwark against racial injustice and political corruption. The “He Gets Us” website features content about of-the-moment topics, like artificial intelligence and social justice. “Whatever you are facing, Jesus faced it too,” the campaign claims.
These things are all true about Jesus. The problem is that while the organization won’t disclose its financial backers, the billionaire Hobby Lobby founder David Green told Glenn Beck that his family is a major funder. If Green expressed his views on what the phrases “women’s rights” and “racial justice” mean, they very likely would not be what most people think of when these subjects come up. (Green’s family sued the government over the Affordable Care Act because they didn’t want their employees’ insurance plans to cover drugs that might cause an abortion.)
When I asked “He Gets Us” representatives what they meant by “women’s rights,” they pointed me to a link on their website that lays out the various ways that Jesus was extraordinary for his time in the way he treated women. It’s true, he was. But they must know that when most people — especially those they are targeting — hear “women’s rights,” they don’t realize that just speaking to a woman was a radical act for Jesus.
I also asked “He Gets Us” if there were any nonconservative Christians funding the group, and they referred me to their website. They also included a boilerplate description of the campaign’s holding company, the Signatry/Servant Foundation, which, according to The New York Times, “has donated to some [organizations] that align with anti-abortion and right-wing political causes.”
When I asked again (because I still didn’t have an answer) if that meant that there were nonconservative Christian donors, I was informed that their “statement is sufficient.”
The secretiveness is a red flag.
Invariably, the people running seeker movements hide what they actually believe. They focus on the things that will draw people in, and that ironically ultimately play a tiny if not nonexistent role in informing their lives or how the church runs. Once the person is embedded in the community and totally bought into a specific version of Christianity, the real beliefs are casually mentioned like they’ve been saying this all along. It can make you feel like you are losing your mind. The nature of becoming involved in a church community like this is intimate — so there is lots of trauma bonding and vulnerability, such that by the time you realize that this is not for you, it feels almost impossible to leave.
If the day I walked into that Upper East Side church service the pastor had given a sermon calling homosexuality a sin or said that women should submit to their husbands, I would have gotten up and walked out. I only learned that these were core teachings after I had been attending a year and a half and was in too deep. Abortion was never addressed from the pulpit (at least to my knowledge), but once I started asking, I found the church community fairly homogeneous in its anti-abortion beliefs, a view that the pastor expressed publicly many years after I left the church.
You might be thinking “What awful people!” But they weren’t. They were kind people who thought they were doing something good: saving souls. And if you are trying to write this off to the thinking of uneducated or unsophisticated know-nothings, the parishioners were educated, often by Ivy League and other elite institutions, and held impressive jobs. The pastors were intellectually rigorous and thought deeply about issues.
In fact, one of the reasons I was so surprised when I traversed deeper into the theology was that the people in the church frequently made a point of distinguishing their brand of evangelicalism from what they saw as the intolerant, unsophisticated, overly politicized brand of evangelicals outside of major metro areas.
The problem of the lack of up-front honesty about theological beliefs in evangelical churches led to the creation of the organization Church Clarity. My story is not a one-off. It happens all the time.
Which is why the refusal of “He Gets Us” to disclose their donors is so problematic.
The link they sent me explained that they are keeping their donors a secret to keep the focus on Jesus, which doesn’t really make sense. How would saying that there are progressive Christians funders in addition to the conservative funders violate anyone’s desire to keep their involvement secret or distract from Jesus?
This group is free to run whatever kinds of ads they want and to spend grotesque amounts of money doing it in a way that seems anathema to the teachings of Jesus. But when they co-opt the language of social justice to draw people in, then they need to be clear about who is funding this and what the people they attract into churches with these ads will be told. Without such transparency, many people may very well get hurt.
(Kirsten Powers is a New York Times bestselling author and writes “Things That Matter” on Substack, where this column first appeared. Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and the author of “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist With People Who Drive You Nuts.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)