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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 01/15/2012

Focus on the Family’s Patriots-Broncos ad: Should Jesus be marketed alongside Cialis?

The 30-second “Focus on the Family” commercial shown on CBS during Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game could not have been more visually pleasing – or, to my mind, truer to what Christianity is supposed to be.
Former NFL quarterback Phil Simms watches as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow warms up before an NFL divisional playoff football game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots on Saturday, in Foxborough, Mass. (Charles Krupa - AP)

It was simple and to the point, showing kids reciting a slightly enhanced version of the Bible verse that Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow used to scribble under his eye on game days: John 3:16. (Click here to watch a bunch of adorable tots tell you, “For God so loved the world — The whole world. Everyone. Anyone. That’s a lot of people! – that he gave his one and only son – his only son — That whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life. Wow!”)

Though not exactly a Benetton commercial – I think I spied one black girl in the crowd at the end – was there anything wrong with a pitch that verbally, anyway, underscores the message that God loves us all? Sure there was; some of my friends on social media were appalled, saying that if they wanted “that garbage” they knew where to look, thanks.

My own, initially positive, reaction was followed by queasiness of a different sort. Were we Christians really hawking Jesus alongside Cialis now? (If you have an epiphany lasting more than four hours...) Not, as anyone who’s ever visited a holy site can tell you, that the commoditizing of faith is anything new. And in following Jesus’s directive that we spread the Word, televised pitches are nowhere near the most extreme measures we have tried.

On Twitter, I asked whether those who were offended by the ad would have minded as much if they hadn’t known that the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family had sponsored it.

“If I were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist, yes,’’ tweeted back my ‘She the People’ colleague (and Tim Tebow fan) Sandra Fish. “So I am.”

Others said it wasn’t the cute kiddies they minded, but the unstated, not-cute Focus on the Family opposition to gay marriage.

At the height of the GOP presidential primary season, on a day that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson was in Texas helping Christian conservatives pick Rick Santorum as the best evangelical alternative to Mitt Romney in that contest, peeling off that “Focus on the Family” sticker was impossible.

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger told the Denver Post before the ad aired that the group fully anticipated complaints: “We will hear about shoving religion down people’s throats. But if it’s okay to shove Doritos down people’s throats, and cars and everything else, we have the right to advertise, too.”

And in this information age, religious groups seem to be exercising that right ever more vigorously.

The “I am a Mormon” ads that have been running across the country since 2010 came to billboards in Times Square this year, using the popularity of the musical “Book of Mormon” as an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ opportunity to push back against stereotypes about the Church of Latter Day Saints and its followers.

Even my fellow Catholics ran a feature-film quality ad in TV prime time last month, aimed at coaxing non-practicing Catholics to come on home. “There’s a way of life where simplicity brings joy and humility leads to happiness…” began the ad, which looked like a trailer you’d see for a $100 million movie.

But the good news, for those disinclined to listen to the Good News, is that these televised attempts to compete in the marketplace of ideas are far less intrusive than the behatted church ladies who knocked on our door one recent weekend morning, only to be greeted by my curt, betoweled husband. If you don’t like the pitch, all you have to do is click.

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and anchors “She the People,” a forum for women writing about politics and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

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