Church at the Super Bowl: Football, Jesus and fascism

The Super Bowl is more than a game; it is a metaphor for American life

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 14, 2023 5:50AM (EST)

Football helmet on a cross | Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Football helmet on a cross | Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Sunday's was one of the most exciting Super Bowls in recent years, with the Kansas City Chiefs defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in a nailbiter. But the Super Bowl is more than a game; it is a metaphor for American life. 

American society is one of increasing economic precarity and desperation. It is estimated that 16 billion dollars will be legally gambled on the Super Bowl, lots of that by people desperate to improve their life circumstances. Consumerism and late-stage capitalism are insatiable cannibals. Many people watch the Super Bowl, not for the competition on the field but instead primarily for the commercials. The NFL has created a multimedia machine worth tens of billions of dollars and has succeeded in making Sunday football and the Super Bowl a type of civic religion and unofficial national holiday, respectively.

A spectacle — in the truest sense of the world — of nationalism, militarism and so-called patriotism, this year's Super Bowl was the first time that the Black National Anthem was sung. It was also the first NFL championship game where both opposing teams were led by black quarterbacks. Almost all of the NFL's teams are owned by rich white men. Most of the NFL's players – who literally sacrifice their health and well-being in what is a brutally violent sport – are Black and brown. Those same Black and brown football players (and coaches) are expected to be silent on political and social matters (unless they are "conservatives") lest they offend the sensibilities and expectations of White America.

Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch was shown watching the game with Elon Musk as his guest. Murdoch and Musk are two of the greatest dangers to American democracy and freedom, so it is no coincidence that Elon Musk was his guest at the game.

And predictably, right-wing propagandists and "culture war" bloviators attacked the Super Bowl for its supposedly "woke" politics. They singled out Rihanna and her half-time performance for special scorn and contempt, accusing it and her of being "Satanic." 

Donald Trump could not resist sharing his hatred of Rihanna on his propaganda disinformation platform Truth Social: "EPIC FAIL: Rihanna gave, without question, the single worst Halftime Show in Super Bowl history — This after insulting far more than half of our Nation, which is already in serious DECLINE, with her foul and insulting language...." 

And of course, there were the ads for "Jesus Christ" that aired during this year's Super Bowl.

Mockery and laughter is just taken as validation of the righteousness of the Christian right's struggle to end pluralistic democracy

The ads were sponsored by an anonymous group of "Christian" big money funders who de facto want to turn the country into a White Christian theocracy. At Christianity Today, Bob Smietana provides these details about the new "Jesus Christ" ad campaign:

For the past 10 months, the "He Gets Us" ads have shown up on billboards, YouTube channels, and television screens—most recently during NFL playoff games—across the country, all spreading the message that Jesus understands the human condition.

The campaign is a project of the Servant Foundation, an Overland Park, Kansas, nonprofit that does business as The Signatry, but the donors backing the campaign have until recently remained anonymous—in early 2022, organizers only told Religion News Service that funding came from "like-minded families who desire to see the Jesus of the Bible represented in today's culture with the same relevance and impact He had 2000 years ago."

But in November, David Green, the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby, told talk show host Glenn Beck that his family was helping fund the ads. Green, who was on the program to discuss his new book on leadership, told Beck that his family and other families would be helping fund an effort to spread the word about Jesus.

In an interview with NPR, Josiah Daniels, who is an Associate Opinion Editor at Sojourners, shared these concerns about the Christofascist politics at work in the "He Gets Us" ad campaign:

I think that the confusing thing is that when you go to the site, they're using language like activist, like inclusive, like marginalized. You know, you'll go to the site, and you'll see that there are these multiple posts tagged with activist, justice, inclusive. And so they're using the language of social justice, but there's no material commitment to actually practicing social justice. So that disturbs me

Slate's Molly Olmstead focuses on how the real motivation behind the new "Jesus Christ" ad campaign is to increase the power of White Christians in American life at a time when their numbers are shrinking:

But of course, the funders of these ads think they're doing just that. As one spokesperson of the campaign told Ad Age, "the 'He Gets Us' Super Bowl spots will explore how the teachings and example of Jesus demonstrate that radical love, generosity, and kindness have the power to change the world." This, ultimately, gets at the real political underpinnings of the campaign: the belief that America will become a much more peaceful, successful, and wholesome place once it has become a more fully Christian nation—a more traditional perspective than the focus on diversity and "radical compassion" and "standing up for the marginalized" implies. On Sunday, $20 million is being placed on that bet.

Now new research from PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and the Brookings Institution reinforces just how "Christian nationalism" is an existential threat to American democracy and freedom.

Some of PRRI's findings include how Christian nationalism is correlated with hostility towards pluralistic democracy, support for political violence as seen on Jan. 6 with Trump's coup attempt and the terrorist attack on the Capitol, racism and white supremacy, misogyny and hostile sexism, nativism and xenophobia, authoritarianism and social dominance behavior, and a range of beliefs and attitudes that are illiberal and anti-democratic.

In an essay in response to the new PRRI data, author and historian Jemar Tisby highlights how Christian nationalism is not race-neutral but is actually a White supremacist political project:

Whenever I talk about Christian nationalism, I make sure to highlight the racism inherent in the ideology.

While it is often unspoken, the word "white" should be presumed as a prefix of Christian nationalism. Racial bigotry is inherent to and inseparable from this belief system.

To give one example, the most notorious racist terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan operates from a white Christian nationalist framework. The founder of the second major wave of Klan activity, William J. Simmons, wrote in 1922, "[The KKK only admits] "native born, white, Gentile, Protestant Americans…"

The white Christian nationalist view of "true" Americans has always centered on people deemed white and has labeled anyone else—Jews, Blacks, immigrants—as "other."

To put a finer point on the risk: White Christian nationalism not only greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the church, it is the greatest threat to a multiracial and inclusive church and democracy.

For several decades the Christian right has been attempting to tear down the wall between church and state in America. They have been largely successful in that project. The Christian right now controls the Republican Party, the "conservative" movement, and the Supreme Court. The election of Donald Trump and the rise of his MAGA movement was another victory in their campaign to create a White Christian theocracy. Women's reproductive rights have been taken away with the end of Roe v. Wade.

Although Trump is no longer president – for now – the Christian right is continuing to expand its influence across the country well beyond Republican-controlled neofascist states such as Florida and Texas.

The American mainstream political class, and especially the Democrats, centrists, liberals, and progressives, have been very ineffective in stopping the Christian right's escalating assaults on multiracial pluralistic democracy and the Constitution.

Why is this?

The Christian right has created a parallel set of very well-funded institutions that operate outside of normal democratic politics but that simultaneously use democratic institutions as a way of subverting them. Today's Republican Party and "conservative" movement constitute a type of religious politics where reason, facts, reality, and the truth are secondary to obtaining and keeping political power. In essence, this is a type of faith where White Christianity plays a very important role in structuring the ideology, belief system, behavior, and the social cognition of its followers.

The Christian right and its followers truly believe that they are on a mission from God in their attempts to tear down multiracial secular pluralistic democracy. Many of them also believe that we are in the End Times and that the Apocalypse will soon arrive. Such people cannot be negotiated or reasoned with. Contrary to what many in the American political class and news media would like to believe, the Christian right cannot be shamed or mocked or otherwise embarrassed into changing their beliefs and behavior.

To that point, liberal schadenfreude may generate clicks and ad revenue, but it does no real political work in terms of protecting American democracy. In the end, that mockery and laughter is just taken as validation of the righteousness of the Christian right's struggle to end pluralistic democracy and replace it with a White Christofascist "Shining City on the Hill" where white men with money rule over all others because their God commands it.  

Pro-democracy Americans need to understand these realities so that they can formulate a plan to stop the Republican fascists and their shock troops. Part of that will require using the appropriate moral language. Another part of an effective resistance campaign will involve enlisting liberal and progressive pro-democracy Christians to provide a counter-narrative against so-called "evangelicals" (meaning White Christians) and a Republican Party that has created a brand name where they are identified as being the party of "morality" and "family values" and what it means to be a "real American."

The White Christian Nationalism project can be defeated. But the first step in victory is correctly understanding what is actually being fought over, the enemy's capabilities, and how they see the battlefield and victory. Unfortunately, too many Democrats, liberals, progressives, centrists, the American news media, pundits, and everyday Americans still believe that denial and wish-casting and "dialogue" are effective ways of stopping the Christian right-wing and Republican fascists – and that is why they are losing.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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