Christians and Propaganda

In 1791, in an essay called Public Opinion, James Madison considered one particular issue that might cause instability particularly in a large republic: “The larger a country, the less easy for its real opinion to be ascertained,” he explained. That is, factions might not, in the end, consist of wise, knowledgeable, and reasonable men. They might consist of passionate, ignorant, and irrational men, who had been led to hold “counterfeit” opinions by persuasive men.”

The way out of this political maze was the newspaper. “A circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people,” he explained, “is equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits.” Newspapers would make the country, effectively, smaller.

In 1835, there was a young man of many talents, best known as a painter, who published a book called Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration, urging the passage of a new immigration law banning all foreign- born Americans from voting.

He believed there existed a Catholic plot to take over the United States. He believed that, to defeat such a plot, the U.S. government needed a secret cipher. Eventually, he developed a code decided that would be used it to communicate by a network of wires that he imagined would one day stretch across the entire continent. It wouldn’t be long, he predicted in 1838, before “the whole surface of this country would be channeled for those nerves which are to diffuse, with the speed of thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land; making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country.” 

He invented the telegraph and what we know as Morse Code. His name was Samuel Morse.

In her book “These Truths: A History of the United States” Jill Lepore writes this idea “would be revisited by each passing generation of exasperated advocates of republicanism. The newspaper would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the radio would hold the Republic together; the Internet would hold the Republic together. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong.”1

The writer, reporter, and political commentator. Walter Lippmann struggled with this concept as well. During the Scopes trial in July of 1925 – one in which a teacher was put on trial for breaking Tennessee Law by teaching the Theory of Evolution – Lippmann, witnessing this divide between people of science and people of faith begged an even broader question about what happens in a democracy when people cannot agree about how they decide what it true. If the majority of voters decided that Charles Darwin was wrong, what was everyone else supposed to do? How could the minority of people on the other side even begin to argue with the majority?1

Lippman concluded, “This is the propagandist’s opportunity.” (Propaganda – information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.) With enough money, and with the tools of mass communication deployed efficiently, the propagandist can turn political majority into truth.”Mass democracy can’t work, Lippmann argued, because the new tools of mass persuasion— especially mass advertising— meant that a tiny minority could very easily persuade the majority to believe whatever it wished them to believe.

Here we are now almost 100 years later with a history full of this particular dilemma. Now we are up against a weapons grade level of mass communication and social media that Walter Lippman could have never imagined.

Houston is always in danger during hurricane season. So, when a tropical depression or storm is detected in the gulf or Atlantic, people in Houston pay attention. But if you want to get the weather in Houston, you do not have to go to your local news station or preferred weather channel. You can go to Space City Weather.   Why does Space City Weather exist? It exists to provide hype-free, accurate forecasts so that Houston residents can make informed decisions about protecting their families, property and businesses. You see, even the weather is filled with propaganda. They make money on ads and having more viewers equals charging more for ads. So, television stations, social media and any other platform that relies on viewers, users or clicks, need to get your attention and keep it as often and as long as possible. How do they do this? There are a few ways, and creating emotional responses is at the top of the list. So even the weather, a subject that we hope would contain pure facts and measured opinions, is subject to the propaganda machine.

We want to believe that we are clear thinking, rational people. We want to believe that we have arrived at our conclusions and opinions through well thought-out reasoning. But we are vulnerable. All of us. According to Jonathan Haidt, “…moral reasoning [is] often a servant to moral emotion.”2 What this means is that we do not simply think our way through issues, but instead, we all have an instantaneous emotional reaction to certain words, people and concepts and, instead of wrangling those emotions in and drawing conclusion based on reason, we begin to reason in support of our moral emotions.2 Having an emotional response is not wrong, nor is it unavoidable although I believe we can get better at controlling it. However, this natural human emotional response is exactly what propaganda exploits. Propaganda is not interested in the truth; it is interested in promoting one group’s view of what is true. It does this not by speaking simply to your reason, but instead it seeks to create an emotional response that we in return rationalize. Most often, this is fear and anger. When propaganda infects opposing views, then we find ourselves in the very state we live in today – an irrational emotional frenzy. The problem is that each side thinks that it is the other that has lost its collective mind. The propagandists know this and they are setting fires all around us all of the time. Your news channel is not your friend.

And the church, Christians, have fallen prey to this resulting in an ever-weakening witness and a nearsighted worldview. In “The Story of Christianity”, Justo L. Gonzalez writes sometimes “Christians can be so full of zeal that they contradict the very essence of the way of Jesus.”3 An extreme example of this would be an anti-abortionist killing a doctor who performs abortion. A more common example would be the current angry and violent rhetoric coming from the mouths of those who profess a Christian faith.

Let me sum it up as clearly as I can. Propaganda is dangerous and it is being used against you. Christians (you) are vulnerable. When we buy into it and its fear-mongering, we lose our witness and weaken our message. Five minutes on Facebook will prove my point. That’s a problem and the church isn’t aware of it. In fact, sometimes the church is guilty of propagating it.

1 This quote and first two illustrations are from These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Pages 419-420
2 The Righteous Mind,  Jonathan Haidt pg. 29
3 The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. Page 345

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