From its beginnings in 1988, “WWJD” evolved from a simple motto teens used to cope with peer pressure, to a secular fashion fad, to a Christian market craze with endless spin-offs, to a much more loaded question that adults now use to try to influence public policy.
(For an introduction to this series, read Part 1: Origin of the Phrase.)
(NOTE: This post was updated on February 5 to reflect new information gathered from a phone interview with Ken Freestone on January 28, after his comment below. The original post incorrectly identified Janie Tinklenberg as the creator of the first WWJD bracelets. Tinklenberg, who took credit for the idea in interviews with The Independent, Scripps Howard, Christianity Today International, and other publications, did not respond to my interview request after one week. Dan Seaborn was unavailable for comment.)
When I was in fourth grade (’97/’98), WWJD bracelets were all the rage. All the cool kids were wearing them, Christian or not. For most people, they were more fashion statement than moral guide. I had two—one navy blue, and one rainbow-colored—and I guess for me, they were a little bit of both.
These bracelets first appeared in 1988, on the wrists of teenagers from Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan. Dan Seaborn, who was the youth pastor at Central at the time, had been using the phrase “What would Jesus do?” as a sort of slogan for his youth group, inspired by Charles Sheldon’s novel In His Steps. He wanted to have this slogan printed onto something that he could give the teens in his charge, something small that they would see regularly and be reminded of the commitment they had made to follow Jesus.
So he approached Mike Freestone of Packard Advertising Specialties to help him develop the idea. Mike’s brother, Ken Freestone, founder and owner of the company, also got involved. Together, the three men came up with the idea of reducing the slogan to a four-letter acronym and printing it on woven bracelets. The bracelets were manufactured by Woven-Line in Wisconsin, with a minimum order of 100.
After the positive reception by Dan’s church, Ken thought, “Hey, I bet other churches would like these, too!” So in 1990, he sent promotional brochures to a number of churches throughout the U.S., and ended up selling a few thousand bracelets that way. Interest remained steady for the next three years, and Packard Advertising Specialties came out with new “WWJD” merchandise: buttons, hats, sweatshirts, mugs. But the bracelets remained the most popular.
In 1993, Ken sold his company to Lesco Corp. His brother Mike stayed on staff and helped present the bracelets to Christian retailers, starting in 1996. The product received the big promotional push it needed in the spring of 1997, when Paul Harvey mentioned it on his syndicated radio show. Lesco sales exploded to 15 million bracelets that year, and dozens of corporations rushed in to capitalize on the fad, throwing shirts, hats, key chains, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, pens, and other merchandise into the mix. By 1998, Family Christian Stores was carrying 75 different items with the WWJD moniker. You could get, for example, your own WWJD Interactive Devotional, in which popular Christian musical artists answer that “one tough question.” Or a WWJD “Holy Bear” (a Christianized Beanie Baby). Or a sterling silver WWJD pendant in a velvet gift box.
Or, my favorite: a WWJD board game! The objective is to be the first player to collect 2 “W’s,” a “J,” and a “D” by correctly answering what Jesus would do in a number of situations. The product description on Amazon is just too good not to quote in full:
Designed to provoke thought and conversation among followers of the Christian faith, WWJD poses some tough questions. Starting with Situation cards, players encounter real problems in four categories: The World, The Community, The Family, and Friends. Situations include alcoholism, domestic abuse, cheating, and racism, among other things. Lesser dilemmas, such as hurt feelings over a forgotten birthday, are also addressed. Situation cards provide the player a choice among three answers (as well as the opportunity to come up with a different answer entirely). A fifth card category, Reflection, asks open-ended questions. A Reflection card might address cloning, abortion, or taxes. The players come up with their own answers to these cards using their faith as a guide and, if needed, the included Spiritual Guide. The answers are then discussed by all players with the goal of deepening their understanding of Jesus and what he would do in the same circumstances.
You could also tune in to WWJD-TV, a Christian talk show in which youth talk openly about the issues they are facing.
The bracelets, though, still brought in the greatest profit. What’s interesting to me is how they jumped outside Christian circles and into the secular world, even though their message is so explicitly Christian. High-profile retailers, like Wal-Mart, Hallmark, and Barnes & Noble, started stocking them, as did gas stations, and they could often be spotted around the wrists of celebrities, like basketball player Allen Iverson. Mainstream media outlets, like CNN and Fox News, reported on the growing trend.
Garrett Sheldon, the great-grandson of Charles Sheldon and author of an updated version of the novel that started it all, told Salon.com that he’s glad that the phrase has caught on so widely, but that he wishes he could have protected it from dilution, from all the absurd profiteering that has turned it into something trite.
Peruse the “Christian Living” section of your local Christian bookstore, and you’ll find the phrase tweaked to apply to such topics as dieting, child-raising, alcohol consumption, and shopping:
- What Would Jesus Eat?
- What Would Jesus Drink?
- How Would Jesus Raise Your Child?
- How Would Jesus Vote?
- Who Would Jesus Kill?
- What Would Jesus Buy?
- What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
The question has even shaped political campaigns and movements, as candidates and organizations and groups use it to justify their positions, gain votes, or raise awareness for particular issues. For example, in the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore said several times that he was driven in his personal life by the question “What would Jesus do?”—and that same question would influence his policy decisions, he promised. Fast-forward eleven years to November 2011, and you have Occupy London protesters flying a giant banner outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, bearing that same message, “What Would Jesus Do?”, to draw attention to all the suffering wrought by the greed and injustice of the world’s top 1 percent. Jesus consistently opposed the rich and advocated for the poor, they say, and we would do well to follow his example.
In November 2002, the Evangelical Environmental Network launched an ad campaign featuring the slogan “What Would Jesus Drive?” The campaign included print ads and a TV spot. I couldn’t find the commercial anywhere online, but I did find a description: It opens with an image of a bearded Jesus appearing from the clouds, then dissolves into scenes of overcrowded highways, floods, and a child using an inhaler. A sonorous voiceover asks, “Too many of the cars, trucks, and SUVs are polluting our air, increasing global warming, and endangering our health. . . . So if we cherish God’s creation, maybe we should ask, ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’” Jim Ball, the American Baptist minister responsible for the ad, said, “Jesus wants his followers to drive the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that truly meets their needs. . . . He’d definitely be in favor of public transportation.” (To learn about the impact of this ad campaign, read this article by Christine McCarthy McMorris, or visit whatwouldjesusdrive.info.)
More recently, in February 2011, Sojourners placed a full-page ad in Politico, emblazoned with the slogan “What Would Jesus Cut?” Signed by 28 Christian leaders, the ad ran just weeks after the House passed a budget that disproportionately cut programs that protect the poor, such as child healthcare programs and international aid, while increasing military spending and tax cuts for the rich. Budgets are moral documents, the ad claims, reflecting the priorities of the nation, and right now the U.S. seriously needs to shift its funds and its interests from the wealthy and the powerful to the weak and the vulnerable, as Jesus would. Following this ad, more than 10,000 activists around the country sent e-mails to members of Congress asking “What Would Jesus Cut?,” and 1,000 activists sent out bracelets that read “WWJC?”
The political implications of “What Would Jesus Do?” are continually ridden out not only by politicians and organizations, but also by grassroots protesters, cartoonists, TV script writers, and merchandisers, who ask “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”, “Who Would Jesus Deport?”, “Who Would Jesus Torture?”, and other rhetorical questions meant to prompt moral reflection. The people who wave such signs or draw such cartoons or write such lines or design such T-shirts aren’t even necessarily Christian, yet they passionately invoke the ethos of Jesus, because in his actions and his teachings they recognize a vision that is beautiful and pure and perfect. They recognize also the hypocrisy of a nation that claims a Christian foundation yet fails to live out the principles of that tradition.
In the 1990s and 2000s, songs sprang up appropriating the “WWJD” premise with all reverence, by Julie Miller (1990), Big Tent Revival (1998), Stephan Christiansen (2003), Ross Berkal (2003), Keith Follese and Billy Yates (from the WWJD soundtrack, 2010), and Clark Ford (from 1994: The Musical, 2011). The lyrics urge love and compassion in the name of Jesus. Some bands, though, like Axis of Awesome, take a more satirical approach.
Several plays were also written based on the premise of WWJD. I found two, though I’m sure there are more. What Would Jesus Do? by Yvette Heyliger is one; it premiered in 2001 at the Hansberry Sands Theatre in Milwaukee. The story centers on the internal conflict faced by a devoutly Christian woman who is exposed to HIV by her husband. Lighter in tone is Anna Lewis’s 2008 play WWJD?, which she wrote for her master’s thesis at Brigham Young University, along with a critical essay. The play kicks off with Jesus moving into an apartment with four college students. In my play, Lewis says, Jesus is a “deity-next-door … exactly the kind of guy who would wash your dishes or go miniature golfing with you.” You can read the full play here. (And below, you can watch the trailer for the low-budget feature film that’s being produced based on Lewis’s play.)
The phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” has become a snowclone, a phrasal template that’s customizable to suit any purpose. A lot of its present-day derivatives have nothing to do with Jesus, but instead substitute his name with somebody else’s. Book titles, especially, make use of this formula; publishers want you to ask yourself what your favorite literary, philosophical, political, business, and cultural heroes would do in various life situations. (You have to buy the books to find out.)
Other derivatives are meant purely as a joke:
(See also Glenn and Gary McCoy’s cartoon, WWPHD?)
Clearly, the impact that Charles Sheldon’s thoughtful little novel has had on popular culture is enormous. Contemporary adaptations of the four recurring words in his book range from the deeply serious to the supremely silly. Some applications would certainly do Sheldon prouder than others. Ideally, Sheldon wanted the phrase to penetrate all areas of life so that Jesus Christ could work his transformative power through them. When taken seriously, “WWJD” recasts commonplace choices in a moral light—choices that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as having a moral component, like which car you drive, or where you buy your coffee, or how you draft a budget—and reminds you that your choices have consequences for others.
Some people say that the question “What would Jesus do?” is flawed in its theology, in its being too reductionistic, or just plain impossible to answer. I will address these criticisms in my next post.
Cave, Damien. “What Would Jesus Do—About Copyright?” Salon.com. 25 Oct. 2000. <http://www.salon.com/2000/10/25/wwjd/>
Gaither, Milton. “Wwjd?” St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. 29 Jan. 2002. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g1epc/is_tov/ai_2419101345/>
George, Ron. “What Would Jesus Do: Words in a Trademark Battle.” Scripps Howard News Service. 1 July 1998. <http://www.texnews.com/1998/biz/wwjd0701.html>
Graff, Vincent. “Four letters that shook the world (WWJD).” The Independent (UK). 31 July 2003. <http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/956032/posts>
Sheppard, Sandy. “What Would Jesus Do?” Christianity Today International. 1998. <http://www.christianity.com/Christian%20Living/Features/11622298/>