Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
After a long day of travel and some intitial meetings at my denominational chaplain training symposium I settled back into my hotel, contemplating some of the events of the past week and reflected on Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism which I finished reading this week. It is a very hard read because each sentence, each paragraph, and each page requires one to think about history, philosophy, ethics, religion, and politics. In fact, if a reader is lacking in these disciplines they will not fully appreciate both the message and the timeliness of this book, which was published over sixty years ago. Sadly, the state of our educational system means that even many college educated people, whose education has prepared them for the workplace but unable to think critically would have trouble appreciating Arendt’s words.
With us now at President Trump’s 100 day point, in which he has failed to accomplish any for his promises and according to his own words did not realize hard difficult being the President would be, it is important to reflect on the present and the past, to compare, contrast, and learn lessons. There are many to learn, but I think the most important is the power of lies and propaganda in the minds of the President’s most loyal supporters, Evangelical Christians. He won over 80% of the Evangelical vote, and in the most recent opinion polls Evangelicals remain the President’s most loyal followers, and are more likely to believe his most demonstrably verifiable falsehoods than anyone, despite the fact that the President in his actions and words mocks the heart of the Christian faith on a daily basis even while chumming the water with new promises designed to keep Evangelicals in his camp. Trump has successfully co-opted Evangelicals using the same “us against them” language that the preachers of the supposedly Christian Right and their political allies in the GOP have been using for forty years.
Arendt repeatedly addressed the subject of followers who support leaders that do not have their interests at heart. She noted:
“The obvious contradiction between a mass organization and an exclusive society, which alone can be trusted to keep a secret, is of no importance compared with the fact that the very structure of secret and conspiratory societies could translate the totalitarian ideological dichotomy—the blind hostility of the masses against the existing world regardless of its divergences and differences—into an organizational principle. From the viewpoint of an organization which functions according to the principle that whoever is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against me, the world at large loses all the nuances, differentiations, and pluralistic aspects which had in any event become confusing and unbearable to the masses who had lost their place and their orientation in it.”
The apocalyptic worldview of Evangelicals, shaped by decades of propaganda claiming that Christians were being persecuted, and the mythology promoted by Tim LaHaye’s thirteen best selling novels of the Left Behind series have created a base that is willing to believe every conspiracy theory imaginable. As Arendt wrote:
“The claim inherent in totalitarian organization is that everything outside the movement is “dying,” a claim which is drastically realized under the murderous conditions of totalitarian rule, but which even in the prepower stage appears plausible to the masses who escape from disintegration and disorientation into the fictitious home of the movement. Totalitarian movements have proved time and again that they can command the same total loyalty in life and death which had been the prerogative of secret and conspiratory societies.”
Many Americans, and not just Conservatives and Evangelicals, but people on the Left as well have become both gullible and cynical, the way some on the Left threw Hillary Clinton under the bus based on now discredited conspiracy theories, and who were in large part to blame for her defeat is prima facia evidence. But this trait is particularly strong in Evangelicals and in Evangelical culture. I know this because I grew up in it and worked for a televangelist in seminary some 25 years ago who later jumped in big on the Trump train.
It is easy to be taken in by such propaganda. William Shirer, an American newspaper and radio correspondent who spent eight years in Nazi Germany wrote:
“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.”
I lived that in Evangelicalism as well as in conservative Anglicanism but escaped it. But the fact is, that for decades the Conservative movement and in particular conservative Evangelicalism have lived in the cloud-cuckoo-world of propaganda and conspiracy theories promoted by unsavory radio and television commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Bill O’Reilly and hundreds more like them, as well as their own politically oriented preachers like Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, James Robison and thousands of others.
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
That my friends is what those who stand aghast at the deliberate falsifications of the Trump administration are fighting against. So anyway. Enough for now. I hope that I have time to follow this up tomorrow as I head home. Until then.