I think this essay is maybe about my parents, particularly my mother, but it’s also about what they taught me and how that relates to the turmoil currently roiling America’s public life.
My mom’s formal education ended with a high-school degree. And yet in the decades since that formal education has ended, she’s never stopped thinking or reading or asking questions about God and his world. She’s taught countless people about Jesus and about virtue. She taught me. She taught women in their church. She’s taught boys and men through the curriculum she has written for their old church’s Sunday evening boys program. And now she’s teaching my kids.
When I say she’s teaching, I don’t mean that she’s just telling people Bible stories or modeling Christ-like behavior, though she is. I mean that she’s genuinely studying, reflecting, thinking deeply about many different topics and questions. She’s spent enormous amounts of time in Scripture and in her books, and she tries to transmit that personal study and personal love for God that is in her to the people she’s teaching. In the past year, she’s read books from what I guess you could call the usual suspects — John Piper, Tim Keller, C. S. Lewis, and so on. But she’s also read John Webster and Scott Swain and Herman Bavinck and she has easily read more Puritans than I have — she’s made her way through a lot of the Banner of Truth paperbacks, in fact. For awhile she was working on teaching herself biblical Greek so she could read the New Testament in its original language and she made a good bit of progress at it too.
And so all of that is in the background of my mind when I consider the egalitarian vision of both our nation’s form of government and of Protestantism at its best. Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, once told a man that if he had his way an ordinary farm boy at his plow would know the Bible better than many of the bishops in the Roman church at that time. When I think about my mom, I know Tyndale got his way. More than that, I know that Tyndale’s way is good because it elevates the ordinary living of ordinary people, allowing them to drink more deeply of God’s truth and to exercise a greater degree of responsibility in their daily lives amongst their families, neighbors, and church members.
When we follow Tyndale, we make our households, the first community any of us will belong to, richer and more beautiful. We make available to the masses the riches of God’s word and many other riches besides. This stream represents a radical degree of confidence in the ability of ordinary people, if given the chance, to become well-educated, capable of self-government, and able to live remarkably fruitful lives as neighbors, church members, and citizens.
Following Tyndale means two things. First, it means we have enough respect for individual people to believe that they’re capable of wisdom and good judgment, of personal maturity and careful thinking. Second, it means that we have enough respect for the truth that we desire to make it as accessible as possible, not to obscure it or hide it, not to deceive, not to bullshit others.
There are, then, many dangers to those of us who desire to follow after Tyndale. We can believe of ourselves and our peers that we lack the ability to become mature, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, and so we must accept some lesser form of living in which we limit ourselves to a small and cramped reality, while the certified experts handle all the difficult problems.
We can slide toward a functional belief that truth is ultimately a thing to be defined by the powerful, that there is no plain reality to which we are bound, no standards of thinking or of discourse to which we must adhere no matter the consequences. Ultimately, everything is just power and advertising and branding and the sooner we get on with that and set aside our silly ideas about things like truth and reason, the better. That this way of thinking is ascendant on both the right and left in our republic is not really able to be doubted any longer.
We have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory” — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.
There is no other word for what Rufo is advocating for besides “propaganda,” which the French theorist Jacques Ellus defines for us this way:
Propaganda seeks to induce action, adherence, and participation with as little thought as possible. According to propaganda, it is useless, even harmful for man to think; thinking prevents him from acting with the required righteousness and simplicity. Action must come directly from the depths of the unconscious; it must release tension, become a reflex.
I trust you can see that this describes not only the excesses of the young left in America today, but also the very strategy being endorsed by Rufo and many on the young right.
Healthy, enduring republics are inherently descendants of Tyndale and his learned plowboy. They can be no other way. If a republic betrays Tyndale then it inherently assigns the masses to a lesser status in which they are relentlessly exploited and pacified by various forms of Soma. Republics, after all, are only as healthy and sane as their citizens. Though the tale is apocryphal, the story of Ben Franklin’s remark that our nation would be a republic, “if you can keep it,” is an accurate description of the task of every citizen of every republic.
This work is made more difficult in our day by our technology and our dominant social institutions. The prevalence of advertising and image-based media challenges this because it creates a sense of being informed without actually knowing anything, of having strong opinions without true wisdom. In a classic blog post, Alastair Roberts laid out how the visual style of Rob Bell had a seductive quality about it that caused the viewer to intuitively agree with Bell without Bell actually having to say anything. What he says about Bell back then applies to an alarming number of people on both the left and right today. These grafs are essential:
If the theologian of the 16th century was a lawyer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man.
For this is what Rob Bell is. If we are to understand Bell, it is imperative that we recognize the sort of movement in Christian discourse that he exemplifies.
The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.
Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor. Its non-confrontational and conversational tone invites ready agreement. Even if you don’t agree, Bell hasn’t pinned himself down. He’s only asked a question, quoted an acquaintance, or related an anecdote, and could easily distance himself from any of them.
We aren’t accustomed to arguing against metaphors, quotations, questions, images, and anecdotes, Bell’s stock-in-trade. We often don’t see them coming, and when we do, we are often uncertain of how to respond to them. Artfully employing such tools, someone like Bell can move you much of the way to his position before you even realize what is happening.
Bell’s distinctive rhetorical style is taken straight from advertising (before writing this post, I bet myself that Bell had studied something along the lines of advertising or psychology in the past: a quick Google search revealed that I was correct). His fragmentary and impressionistic statements, single sentence paragraphs, vague, one-size-fits all observations, generous deployment of unspecific adjectives, frequent uses of the second person singular to describe states of feeling, and heavy dependence upon narrative, anecdote, question, quotation, metaphor, and image are all fairly typical of advertising style.
This has long been a danger amongst some evangelicals, of course. Rob Bell shot to fame for a reason. Yet as the Rufo quote above highlights, these problems are, if anything, even more pronounced on the American right.
Rufo’s star is rising. He’s doing the speaking circuit and working with a variety of new right media outlets and institutions. He’s getting meetings with major figures in the GOP as well:
Flying to Washington, DC, tonight. On my itinerary:
–Panel on "woke capital" with @ClaremontInst and @JDVance1
–Breakfast speech to @HouseGOP members
–Meetings with the policy teams for @LeaderMcConnell, @HawleyMO, @SenTomCotton, & @BankingGOP
–Drinks with @tedcruz
— Christopher F. Rufo ⚔️ (@realchrisrufo) May 17, 2021
Whether or not Rufo is right about the young left is not my concern here. Certainly, stories like these (if accurately reported) are alarming and merit some kind of confrontational response. Moreover, those who want to argue that the young left has done the exact same thing with “whiteness” as Rufo is currently attempting with “critical race theory,” are not entirely wrong. But that is not my main concern here. My concern is with how Christians in the US approach questions of public persuasion and political life.
So, for sake of argument, grant that everything Rufo says about the left is true. What kind of response should we offer? In a longer piece for City Journal Rufo proposes a layered approach that includes both power and persuasion. Yet the words excerpted at the beginning of this critique are not the words of a man who believes in persuasion, at least not persuasion on a mass scale. Rather, they’re the words of a man who believes in advertising and propaganda and only attempting persuasion once an audience has been sufficiently brainwashed.
There’s a certain irony in all this, for Rufo has said that the young left is using its own propaganda to raise up “child soldiers.” This is a rhetorical move meant to conjure up fears of a ruthless totalitarianism that thrives off mass brainwashing — which, if his words above are any evidence, is the very thing Rufo himself wishes to encourage conservatives to do through their own media.
It would seem that Rufo’s objection is not to propaganda in itself, but simply propaganda that causes his side to lose. If that is the case, then we are left mostly with propagandists waging a cold war (for now) against other propagandists. What we are not left with in this scenario is a republic — regardless of who wins. If propagandists win, republican virtue is dead, regardless of whatever ideology the victorious propagandists have advanced.
So what is to be done? Is there another game in town besides the rampant dissemination of propaganda in service of political ideology? Is there some movement that cares about edifying the American mind rather than contributing to its further decay?
The truth is I don’t know the answer to that question, though I don’t much like my guess. My guess is that we are perhaps past the point of no return, so awash in bullshit that it’s impossible to gain an audience or become a viable institution without prostituting yourself to one side or the other.
But perhaps not.
This seems abundantly clear: We need media projects and public figures who care about truth more than they care about political expediency. We need people who are committed enough to the permanent things that they would die for them if it came to that but whose principles, by their very nature, preclude ever using such mindless force themselves if the chance was offered to them. We do not have that now, as the indistinguishability between Rufo’s methods and his opponents’ makes clear. We would be a better nation if we did. Indeed, if we do not acquire such things soon, I worry we will simply not be a nation for much longer.
Perhaps we can settle for something more modest in the short term: Could we have people who desire not to be brainwashed? Could we have leaders who believe in reason? Could we have people who care enough about truth and goodness and justice that they will do the hard work of thinking, reading, and reasoning with their neighbors? Could we have neighborhoods and churches and cities and states and even a country where such discourse is normative, not because it is backed by threat and coercion, but rather because it is backed by a love for the good?
If we could, then we might find that some of our divisions are still solvable. For example, the social conservative idea that is supposedly under constant assault from the left can be stated in relatively simple terms. It is a belief that small households bounded together by care and affection are the heartbeat of every society and that each of us desires, deep down, to belong to small fellowships of love. Much of the rage on the left right now is, in fact, over this very point: Many Black Americans are fearful that they will be denied the chance to exist in such communities because of their skin. Their families will be broken by mass incarceration just as they were once broken by lynching and slavery before that.
Behind that fear is a vindication of the good that social conservatives claim to care about — a deep desire to belong and to be allowed to live in communion with the people one loves. Is that not a basis for the beginning of better conversation about public justice in America? Is that not a means by which we can avoid the stupid theatrics so common in our public life today? Is that shared love not a sufficient basis for doing the hard work of thinking and judging instead of the lazy work of being propagandized and reacting according to our programming? If it is not, then we are doomed. 1
If we can discern such common ground, then a second possibility opens up for us. Some divisions will remain irresolvable until Christ returns to judge the quick and the dead. Yet division need not mean conquest and coercion. Nations can survive divisions if the victorious are willing to be merciful, but we will never be merciful if we are brainwashed by propaganda and thus only see our political rivals as partisan agents and not, first of all, as human neighbors. We can only be merciful if we possess the ability to see both the truth and to see our neighbor.
The political crisis of our day comes down to three core questions, it seems to me:
- Do we still believe that persuasion is possible and that a society that prizes persuasion, argumentation, and reason is desirable and should be promoted and protected?
- When persuasion fails, do we believe that some forms of pluralism are necessary political goods, if for no other reason than to save us from far more dangerous political scenarios?
- When persuasion fails and pluralism is practically difficult, will political winners be willing to be merciful?
The sorts of people who can answer those questions correctly are not the sort of people who go along with schemes for social renewal that run on propaganda or that seek to achieve political success through power alone.
In the book of Daniel, the prophet interprets a dream that King Nebuchadnezzar has in which he sees a great statue of a man with four distinct parts with four different compositions. The final portion of the statue, the feet, is made up of a mixture of iron and clay.
In Daniel 2 we read,
And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things; and like iron which crushes, it shall break and crush all these. And as you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with miry clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage,[b] but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
Regardless of who “wins,” if the victor in our current culture war obtains victory through propaganda their fate will be like that of the statue. They will possess the terrible strength of iron, but the brittleness of iron mixed with clay — and they will crumble.
I do not want to live in a nation that suffers such a fate. Probably you do not either. I would rather live in a nation with households like the one I grew up in and that my mother grew up in. Her dad was a railroad man, a devout Christian, and a keen reader, a student of history who, amongst other things, deplored our nation’s treatment of Native Americans and who had memories of his childhood when his mother, the wife of a tenant farmer, would prepare meals for members of the Omaha tribe who lived near their farm and would sometimes come by to ask for help. His father was a self-taught Lutheran layman who raised a family of devout Christians and filled his church’s pulpit occasionally despite having little formal education and being a poor tenant farmer. The hope of our nation is that we would continue to be home to and continue to grow people like C. G. Fredstrom, Bert Fredstrom, and Ruth Meador.
If we are going to avoid the dark fate looming before us and return to something more like the world of my mother and grandfather and great grandfather, we must reject propaganda and return again to the goods of persuasion and reason and, ultimately, the great good of mercy, which, “is an attribute to God Himself.”
We are, the Bard tells us, most like God not when we ruthlessly use power to establish what we take God’s ends on earth to be, but rather when we consider our own weakness and sinfulness and remember, “That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”