On Campus Crusade’s Bait-and-Switch Tactics

Congratulations to Campus Crusade for Christ on making Markwell famous at Northwestern University in 2012. Or infamous, depending on who you ask.

If you thought your days of glaring peacefully at a blank sidewalk on campus had returned after the Associated Student Government elections, and the recent spurts of rain, you were wrong.

With videos, T-shirt sales, YouTube videos, and chalk and flyers plastered all over campus, Cru has launched a viral campaign – or crusade, rather.

It isn’t anything new, as the campaign has been adapted by Cru campus groups for more than a decade, featuring a particular group member as a central figurehead. According to strategy documents available on CruPress, an online information clearinghouse and resource aggregate for the organization, the bright shirts, slogan, and statements of faith are all central elements.

At NU, it’s Matthew Markwell’s own statement of faith and Cru’s approach that’s sparking discussion and even ire. And as a proud, progressive Christian, I can’t say I’m jibing so much.

After seeing a ground chalking near the NU Library entrance, I Googled “I Agree with Markwell,” unsure about its meaning. And, unexpectedly, I found videos from students and a statement of faith from a McCormick senior detailing his belief in Christian faith. Putting two and two together based on Facebook posts I’d seen before, I realized this was a message from Cru. Videos posted on the site all fall in line with a central narrative, “being good isn’t good enough.”

Six students share their testimonies, yet no stance on Christian doctrine or even the teachings of Jesus are discussed. Rather, they state their agreement with Markwell and almost identically discuss a variety of experiences, including obsession with overachievement and perfectionism, looking to others’ approval for self-validation and the resulting “brokenness” and “emptiness” they felt.

And that’s where these videos end.

What isn’t detailed is what specifically makes them feel so empty. It goes unexplained by these individuals and, to be fair, it’s really not anyone else’s business. But when one puts forth a testimony that seeks to explain his or her faith, it’s going to get deeply personal in many respects. And the videos take the viewer no deeper than one united, controlled message about how “being good isn’t good enough.”

What seems to be implied is that the void was filled through their proclaimed faith in God through Jesus, and their agreement with how Markwell positions it.

Yet Markwell’s positioning of his faith, along with the testimonies, reflects an overall clever bait-and-switch strategy employed by the campaign.

The bait? Simple. It comes in two forms.

First, the very campaign itself focuses on an agreement with Markwell, but encountering an “I Agree with Markwell” T-shirt or chalking doesn’t bring immediate clarity to what’s being agreed with. It strikes curiosity and interest at first, and it seems completely benign. That’s until you ask someone wearing the T-shirt, talk over lunch with a friend who’s aware, or you Google it like I did. And that’s where the switch comes in – when you realize that its a campaign rooted in Christian evangelism.
Second, with the videos, it’s no secret that many students at NU share a similar experience. Many of us went through hell and high water to attain high GPAs and standardized test scores and leadership in extracurricular activities, among other impressive items meriting admission into a prestigious institution of higher learning. Of course, many students can empathize.
But it’s unclear how the larger narrative translates into agreement with Markwell being the alternative to emptiness and despair.  And in order to know what their agreement with Markwell actually means, one must look to Markwell’s statement.

The very statement, and the tactics associated with making it known, explains a growing swell of resentment among various constituencies across campus, with expected and perhaps unintended consequences.

For starters, NU’s Secular Student Alliance has experienced an uptick in membership as a result of Cru’s campaign.“A lot of NU is fairly apathetic in terms of where they fall on faith or non-belief,” said Weinberg sophomore Kate Stewart, SSA’s incoming president and former Daily staffer. “It’s gotten people talking, but it’s gotten people really involved in their non-belief.”

Another online site has developed in response to Cru’s campaign, called “I Disagree With Markwell.” The creators, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily on Wednesday that they felt it was important to create a counter initiative.“At first, it seemed like harmless discussion but then it went overboard when they started spewing their propaganda all over campus,” they said.

And in an interesting twist, memes utilizing Markwell’s Facebook profile pictures have been turned into topical satire. One that’s circulating features Markwell posing with what appears to be an assault rifle and rabbits he hunted and killed.

In all fairness, I’m sure Markwell was ready for the ridicule. Indeed, the CruPress “I Agree with…” strategy document cautions Cru members that they will be ridiculed and to choose someone that can handle this with humility and who the group believes lives out a good example of a Christian life. And that’s something various Cru members have emphasized.

In an interview with The Daily, Weinberg senior and Cru member Meghan Kollbocker detailed that the point of picking out one specific member was to spark discussion.“Someone might look at my shirt and see that if it said Jesus, they’d think they already knew,” she said.

Interestingly enough, while Northwestern’s chapter and others have called themselves Cru for a number of years, the larger international organization decided to officially follow suit last summer. You may otherwise know the organization by the name Campus Crusade for Christ, but there’s been a bit of a switch in tune. In an interview with ABC News, vice president of U.S. Campus Crusade for Christ Steve Sellers said there were two principal problems with the organization’s name.

While one reason cited the brand’s development outside of campus spaces, the other described the word ‘crusade’ as one that has developed an increasingly negative connotation that seems warlike and gives the impression of forcing Christianity on people.Sellers explained Cru’s name change as a way of shedding the impression that the word ‘crusade’ makes it appear that Christianity is being forced onto people by the organization.“We believe Jesus is the most attractive person in history, so we don’t need to force him on people,” he said.

But apparently the name Jesus isn’t attractive enough to start a discussion. Instead, Markwell’s name and personhood are being employed to draw people into a discussion about Jesus.

The campaign may have had good intentions to raise discussions about the Christian beliefs of Cru members, but the discussion hasn’t been as much about Jesus as Cru members claim. This really has become all about Markwell and all about Cru.

Questions from many curious students have been, “Who is Markwell?” and “Why agree with Markwell?” Other students simply dismiss the flyers and chalking as another flood of campus publicity they’ll remain blissfully ignorant about.

If my writing on this is any indication, the name Markwell and the focus on him has received more focus than Jesus.And what’s more is that the national organization’s website details that dropping ‘Christ’ (along with the word ‘crusade) from the organization’s name was because going simply by Cru “enables us to have discussions about Christ with people who might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name,” according to Cru’s website and various reports.

The campaign itself is very overtly Christian, as is the organization’s approach in aggressively advocating its beliefs in a variety of channels internationally. The statement of faith on the website is also quite overt. Overall, the “Markwell” campaign points to a need to deceptively engage otherwise uninterested or apathetic individuals into discussions about Christian faith. While it also galvanizes a base of those who agree with their statement of faith, as positioned through Markwell, it also has the effect of taking a stance implying that those who disagree are somehow lost, jacked up people on the road to damnation.

And it might appear that the campaign isn’t forcing religion onto people, but it has indeed done so. Campus is peppered with ads, classroom chalkboards have been decorated with the slogan, t-shirt sales are happening. It is in-your-face whether you wish for it to be or not.

While the larger Cru organization wishes to disassociate itself with forcing Christianity onto people via the branding alteration, it’s doing just that. As the larger organization engages in bait-and-switch tactics, so does the NU chapter.

Whether desired or not, “I Agree with Markwell” has engaged many on this campus in discussions either about Markwell, religious beliefs or a lack thereof. And, in that respect, Cru’s campaign has been successful.

Personally, I’m not a fan of proselytizing my Christian faith in such a manner. In the meantime, I’m sure my proclaimed (progressive) Christian self isn’t alone in praying for rain.

Note: This is an expanded version of the column in the 4/19 edition of The Daily Northwestern, titled “Markwell, we got issues.” See the printed version via The Daily Northwestern here. For another take on the issue, check out a post from Miriam Mogilevsky at her blog, “Brute Reason,” where the image was obtained. 

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