Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 3, Partisan Propaganda

Gordon Smith Ambrose University President
The Christian Mind: In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of the Christian Mind - Thinking Christianly. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on what vital place of the mind to the Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful and intentionally Christian approach to life and work. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.

Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 3, Partisan Propaganda

Part of our vision for the Christian life, and thus for what it means to be a university, is that we diligently foster our capacity for critical confident, creative, and compassionate thinking: we cultivate the life of the mind. But unfortunately, this is not always encouraged. There are forces or movements that go against this grain and seemingly undercut this vital dimension of the life of the Christian community. I find it helpful to speak of three such threats: pragmatism, sentimentalism and, to be considered here, partisan propaganda.  

My colleague Dr. Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose University, speaks of “partisan reductionism” and he defines it as:

. . . a set of ideas or beliefs, often economic or political in nature, that serve as the rather simple, one or two variable, all-encompassing theoretical prism by which one sees, analyzes, and behaves in the world, almost to the exclusion—or worse, shaming—of other more complex, nuanced, and even competing frameworks. Those who hold this approach also tend to refute the possibility that they could be wrong.

This seems to me to be a variation of what Jacques Ellul spoke of as propaganda: the use of data or information solely for a political or ideological agenda. Media and journalism then become the means for disseminating an ideological agenda rather than fostering true understanding. Opposing views are demonized; critical thought and thus discussion are viewed as a threat to views of those in authority – whether in the civic square or in denominational leadership. The critical value is compliance – whether in the political realm or within the church: unquestioned deference to authority or interest only in a narrative or “facts” that reinforce group identity.

Society and the church have always faced this of course; this is not a new phenomenon or a new threat. Within the Christian community, there are Evangelicals who simply refuse to acknowledge anything in scripture that seems to speak to the priority or necessity of baptism; they have already decided that baptism is optional and they are part of a church group that has always preached this despite the clear evidence from scripture to the contrary. Or, a person identifies as Wesleyan or Calvinian or Evangelical and they are simply deaf to anything that is from another Christian stream – Wesleyan or Calvinian or Catholic –  that might challenge their group assumptions. That is, it is not a new phenomenon, but it would seem that this is a particularly overt form of anti-intellectualism in our day.

I wonder if a corner was turned in late January of 2017 when Sean Spicer, the press secretary in the US White House, looked into the camera and, to his viewers across the US and around the world, defiantly declared that the size of the crowd at the inauguration for Donald Trump was larger than the size of the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration. He was wrong, of course; the evidence clearly indicated otherwise. But that is not my point here. The point is that Spicer knew he was wrong; he knew he was not speaking the truth. With no shame or hesitation he declared this, presumably out of loyalty to his boss. It was the “fact”, one assumes, that he wanted to be the truth, and as such it was the “truth.” It is a classic example of what we mean by when and how information or data has no other purpose but to reinforce the position of a tribe or clan or group or ideology or political persuasion. My point here is that this happens within both church communities and the society at large. Political leaders only want you to subscribe to a newsfeed that affirms them and their views; all other news sources are declared inherently biased or suspect. Church leaders want compliance and they view hard questions or any kind of dissent as an indicator that a person is not a genuine “team player” or sufficiently loyal to the denomination.

I am not for a moment suggesting that we do not affirm a theological and intellectual heritage in the church. Nor am I saying that those of a particular ideological persuasion cannot or should not make a case for their views. Not at all. What needs to be challenged is, rather, the polarizing dismissal of critical discussion and views that might challenge the prevailing assumptions. What needs to be called out is the inclination to declare that another view is fundamentally flawed and to label as such – “socialist” “fascist” “marxist” . . . or within the church, if it is “Catholic” or “Wesleyan” or “Calvinist”: just give a label to an opposing view and now you have cast a shadow over that perspective or idea. You have dismissed, or worse, demonized the other.

Can we foster the capacity for critical thinking? Doing so, means at least two things. First, can we actually face the facts, name reality and know both our history and the circumstances in which we find ourselves? Rather than re-writing history or only seeing our circumstances through a lens that reinforces our views or our deeply held convictions, can we attend to truths and realities that might actually create unease if that is what the facts suggest? Surely as Christians we do not shy away from naming reality; there is nothing – literally nothing – that can undermine our faith. We might feel discomfort; we might wish something otherwise, but in the end we believe that truth can and must triumph. Even if it is messy laundry, so be it.

Second, can we learn from those with whom we differ? Can Evangelicals learn from Catholics, social democrats learn from progressive conservatives, and do so through a process of listening and learning, through hospitality and grace filled conversation, that allows for us to genuinely hear the other? We might not change our minds; but we can at least be open to another perspective, another angle or way of seeing or feeling something. And who knows, if we are genuinely open we might indeed learn something and might actually change our mind about something . . .and when we change our minds, this is not a sign of weakness but actually of intellectual strength. It means we are still learning!

Naming reality – telling the truth – and learning from others with whom we might differ: all part of cultivating a Christian mind.