Friday, October 24, 2008

The Power of Propaganda

The word propaganda is generally associated with deception which is carried out by an oppressive government regime. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “the systematic propagation of a doctrine, cause, or information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.” It is basically a specially formulated series of messages which are designed to influence the opinions and coerce the behavior of large numbers of people. It tends to evoke more of an emotional than a rational response.

When I think of the word propaganda, what immediately comes to my mind is the steady stream of false information with which the German people were inundated by the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler so strongly believed in the power of propaganda that he appointed a special minister as head of it. This man was Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels had two main objectives, one of which was to make sure that no one was able to read anything that was contradictory to the Nazi Party. The other was to make sure that the Nazi views were conveyed to the people in a controlling and persuasive manner. He even supplied cheap radios to the public so that everyone would be able to hear Hitler speak.

We can see the use of propaganda in nearly every aspect of modern day communication. This includes the news and entertainment media (particularly involving the upcoming election), and commercials and infomercials designed to sell a particular product. We have also been exposed to massive amounts of propaganda in multi-level marketing schemes. Anyone remember the water filters? Sadly, one area where we have seen the use of propaganda is in the church. (Note: As a disclaimer, I am now saying that I am not comparing any minister to Adolf Hitler, nor am I comparing any church to Nazi Germany. I am, however, showing the alarming use of propaganda by many ministers, particularly within the Word of Faith circles). The similarities are very sobering and are definitely worth consideration.

There are several basic propaganda techniques, most of which I will list. In some of them I have a link back to previous posts which go into more detail. There is an odd familiarity to all of these techniques. See if you agree.

1. Bandwagon - This is an attempt to persuade or convince an audience to take a course of action because “everyone else is doing it.” You feel pressured to join the crowd (spiritual peer pressure) in order to be on your way to certain victory. You are made to feel as though there is a mass movement that you would be quite mistaken not to join. Those whom you respect are participating, so you feel an obligation to as well.

2. Testimonial - Using someone, preferably a famous person, to endorse a product. A good example of this is a testimony made by a well-known minister. You believe it because of who said it, even though it might contradict what the Bible teaches. This technique can often be combined with Bandwagon. Everyone else believes it, so you do as well, even when you don't feel right about it.

3. Repetition and Slogans - Repetition uses a key word or phrase over and over to the point that the audience says it automatically from sheer habit. In our former church we were taught that we could have whatever we said, which reinforced the need for this intense repetition. The repetitive words and phrases help to shape the opinions and values of the audience. Another example is having statements which the congregation is expected to repeat like mindless robots on a weekly basis, most of which involve a selfish outlook on life and the Word of God. This is also done with certain scriptures which are often used out of context and typically beneficial to the speaker, particularly the speaker's pocketbook. We would often hear about how we were "going to a new level," or "turning a corner." Slogans were often rhyming ones. Examples include: “If you have a need, sow a seed” and “The church that’s alive is worth the drive.” There was always a rhyme about what each year was going to bring also, such as "A Taste of Heaven in 97."

4. Transfer - This technique lays the praise or blame of one person onto another in order to make one more acceptable or to discredit the other. This is used in order to transfer blame from one member of a conflict to another. It is also used to take praise from others. This is often seen in controlling pastors who are unwilling to ever accept blame for his or his family’s mistakes. The blame is placed on others in an attempt to discredit them, and at the same time, proclaim the “innocence” of the actual guilty party. The flip side is that the same controlling, manipulative pastor, without even batting an eye, will take full credit for the fruit of someone else’s labor. Both of these forms of transference were used by our former pastor for years.

5. Name-calling - This can be direct or indirect. Indirect name calling is used when the direct approach would antagonize the audience. It is not as obvious as openly naming names, but is heavy on insinuation. Sarcasm and ridicule are employed with this technique. Indirect name calling is seen most often in controlling churches. This technique was a favorite of our former pastor. It is now obvious that the people he called names were the ones who intimidated him the most.

6. Card stacking or selective omission - This is the process of picking and choosing from a variety of facts and only using those which support the propagandist's purpose. This was often done publicly as well as one-on-one in our former church. If you were one of the lucky ones who had to meet privately with the pastor or one of his family members, you became quite familiar with both of these techniques. Assumptions and decisions regarding your fate were made on their part prior to the meeting regardless of what the actual facts were. And forget reasoning or logic. Anything you had done right was selectively omitted and all that you had supposedly done wrong was stacked against you. It was always a no win situation for you. By the time you left the meeting you were completely annihilated. Another example of this technique was a particular "healing testimony" that the former pastor often shared about someone he prayed for while they were in the hospital. He talked about how the man felt so much better the next day that he asked someone to bring him a fish sandwich. This occurred so many years ago that most of the church members did not know who he was talking about. But there were several of us who knew exactly who he was referring to. The story always implied that complete healing was received. What was selectively omitted was the all-important fact that this individual died two weeks after the pastor prayed for him. He told this story for years as though it were one of his best. Apparently he didn't have too many authentic success stories. And for sure not many hospital visits.

Joseph Goebbels once said, "The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never escape from it." Always be watchful and guard yourself and your family against all forms of propaganda. It is already an overwhelming task to sift through what we are exposed to in the media. It is another matter entirely when propaganda is used in a church setting. Keep these techniques in mind when you are uncertain about the information you are receiving. Taking advantage of people's spiritual vulnerability is the most vile form of manipulation. We know from experience that when you utterly succumb to this form of propaganda, you truly do place yourself in a position that is extremely difficult to escape.