Propaganda, consensus – and faith

It was the fortuitous but timely reading of the early work of Meerloo (1956) and Ellul (1965) on propaganda that brought home to me forcefully how the total change in public morality, that has led so rapidly from sexual aberration being a criminal matter to its legally redefining marriage and the US Constitution, is essentially a text-book example  of how propaganda is done. I think that must become clear to anyone who takes the trouble to compare the public discussion with the scientific evidence.

These books, particularly Ellul’s, also have some worrying general implications for the society in which we find ourselves. To put it bluntly, his worst predictions have been more than fulfilled in our day.

Ellul’s insight was that propaganda (essentially something that only became possible in the age of applied psychology and mass-media) becomes, once unleashed, as insidious and all-pervasive in a society as, say, financial corruption. Once the Nazis and, more persistently, the Eastern-bloc Communists began to use propaganda both to control their own populations and to undermine others, the only effective response for the West was counter-propaganda, because mere information is crushed underfoot by a determined manipulation of the media.

But by Ellul’s time he was able to discern how from governments, the use of propaganda had spread to political parties. He noted the (then recent) rigidity of the two-party US system, and suggested that in a democracy this shift was inevitable, because no new or minority party could hope to muster the resources for effective multi-media propaganda. Many of us have noted how, by now, that polarisation into standard positions has become almost laughably universal: ask an American’s voting habits and you’ll likely have the key to their position on gun-control, health provision, sexuality, evolution, religion and more.

Ellul’s claim is remarkably born out in England, as usual lagging the US by several decades. It was Mrs Thatcher who first enlisted PR consultants Saatchi and Saatchi to mould and market the Conservative message, and Tony Blair’s “New Labour”, famously orchestrated by “special advisers” (aka spin doctors), took it further – to three terms in office. The only possible response was propaganda escalation, and it’s intriguing that the recent election has seen our traditional “third option”, the Liberal Democrats, and other newbie parties like UKIP, effectively wiped out. Ellul’s reasoning was prophetic.

One of Ellul’s major points in relation to this is that the very concept of “public opinion” is a product of the shift to a propaganda-based society. To put it another way, public opinion is actually no-one’s opinion, but is the functional outcome of propaganda. The propagandizers themselves don’t believe in the public opinion – they are concerned to produce the desired effect, and tend (like Blair’s spin-doctors) to become increasingly contemptuous of their ideological base. Tony Blair knew what was behind the so-called “Dodgy Dossier” on Iraqi WMD, and gay activists know full well they’re cherry-picking evidence. And so propaganda tends to destroy ideologies – in Russia, communism began as the motive for propaganda, but became its malleable tool, inevitably. Democracy suffers the same fate once keeping public opinion aboard the word democracy becomes the focus – it’s then OK to torture people or change regimes by skulduggery as long as it’s kept secret or, at a pinch, attributed to the preservation of democracy.

Meanwhile propagandees are either manipulated into blanket acceptance of the public opinion or, as we see so often nowadays, are made afraid to disagree because they believe they must be wrong in the face of the ubiquitous message, or because they’re afraid of the social consequences. This is possibly why in the last UK election, many would not own up to the pollsters that they liked the Conservatives and their decisive victory was a shock. But that was just this year’s choice between the two parties: such a choice is not always offered.

The whole society, then, becomes increasingly involved in a lie. But as I said propaganda, once unleashed, becomes opposable only by counter-propaganda. Back in the sixties, Ellul showed how inter-bloc propaganda became inter-party propaganda. Half a century on, we can see that it has become the norm in moulding public morality, public taste through blanket marketing of commodities and art, and education through its increasing politicisation.

It has even become the norm in science as that, too, has become mainstream and political. A prime example is that old chestnut, climate change. I’ve said before that, as far as I can see, the evidence either way is equivocal, though it may be reasonable to err on the side of caution in framing public policy. But it has become virtually impossible to judge the question because it has been drawn from the realm of science into that of propaganda. An event like “Climategate” shows scientists buying into the manipulation game too, so that the issue (on both sides) becomes yet another battle of rival propagandas, rather than of reasoned opinion.

The same has become true of other scientific issues, like dietary advice in public health, GM crops and, of course, Darwinian evolution in which not only scientists, but commerce, educationalists, media men and politicians have all acquired a huge stake in the standard story. And the stock in trade of all these is propaganda.

Think about it: I’ve said above that “public opinion” is the cover for the suppression of all real opinion and the substitution of a ready-made package for reasons other than truth. If it be true that propaganda techniques have gained a foothold in science, the “scientific consensus” in any field contaminated by it becomes just another name for “public opinion” – the lie (or merely accidental half-truth) that everybody has to buy into, whether consciously or against their better judgement.

Another aspect of a propaganda society is how, as it matures, it becomes self-perpetuating, however much true information is available. Ellul described how, say, a communist who has bought into the package will read, watch and listen only to information that reinforces the myth, excluding all else as lies (and probably, therefore, never engaging with it). Likewise for the anti-communist. And for that reason, the “information explosion” that has happened with the Internet, though it might be thought to reduce the power of propaganda, actually does the reverse. Although good information is accessible at the touch of a mouse, the subject of propaganda will in practice simply find an intensified availability of his own prejudices – this is familiar to all of us in the world of web forums, be they skeptical, Creationist, or whatever, where “communities” are often groups bathing in their own propaganda and shouting down (or erasing) that of others. Even the advertising is targeted to our own profile now.

On a previous thread, GD raised the interesting question of how the Churches can respond to propaganda that affects the reception of their message. Ellul himself raises the same dilemma: to refuse to reply with counter-propaganda (or to use its methods and media selectively and “truthfully”) is doomed simply to fail: propaganda works only by monopolising the media – it cannot be done half-heartedly. On the other hand, to engage in propaganda full out inevitably destroys the very thing it means to be Christian – to speak the truth in love –  just as it can destroy science as a truth-telling enterprise.

Ellul points to three episodes in Church history when this occurred, albeit in ages when propaganda was not fully developed: the fourth century (presumably the institutionalisation of Christianity under Constantine), the ninth century (when party-spirit more than theology led to the Great Schism) and the sixteenth century (when the Reformation triggered a propaganda war leading to bloody physical wars). In all three cases there were real issues and real Christians with true convictions involved, but what came out of them was the degrading of Christianity itself to just another vehicle for propaganda.

Ellul’s answer – which I share – is that being true to the Truth is the very core of Christianity, without which it is better off dead. The apparent self-destruction of acting counter-culturally by attempting to communicate that truth amid a chorus of ready-made lies is, actually, no more than a reminder that the strength of Christ is shown in weakness. The Kingdom of God was always the project of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and the madness of history – as the Book of Revelation graphically teaches – is simply the unfolding of the scroll that God himself has written and sealed. Our job is to seek to do truth. His is to ensure that it finally prevails, to his glory.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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17 Responses to Propaganda, consensus – and faith

  1. Cath Olic says:


    You wrote
    “… and, of course, Darwinian evolution in which not only scientists, but commerce, educationalists, media men and politicians have all acquired a huge stake in the standard story.”

    What would you say are the huge stakes in evolution for these various non-science groups?

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Broad brush reply, Cath Olic:

      Scientists: entire disciplines and careers are dependent on the ruling paradigm: if evolutionary psychology, say, were debunked, everybody in the field is unemployed.
      Commerce: perhaps investment in GM is one example – if genetically based evolution turns out to be badly flawed, ones investment is at risk and, since there will be a whole range of new unforeseen consequences, one may find oneself litigated into oblivion. Profit comes before truth.
      Educationalists: Much legal blood has been spilt in ensuring that “the right” science is taught in schools, and that Creationism, ID or even post-darwinian evolution don’t rend the seamless garment. It looks bad if you suddenly reverse the curriculum having sacked all the rebel teachers, overturned the state education laws and taught the entire population lies. Modern education instils, ostensibly, consensus public opinion, does it not?
      Media-men: Media Science is a juggernaut. It wouldn’t be easy to dethrone your popular science guys and recall your prize documentaries and so on without looking like snake-oil saleman yourself.
      Politicians: at the heart of this post really – in modern societies everything gets dragged into the political arena, the root of the propaganda infection. Politics is interwined with all the above, and politicians above all hate to say, “our theory and practice are all wrong, and we have to change.” That’s not least because their voters have been formed into the mass called “public opinion”, so will immediately vote out the party that rebels against it, having formed it to keep them in office.

  2. Cath Olic says:


    You may be engaging in some propaganda yourself. For instance:

    “On a previous thread, GD raised the interesting question of how the Churches can respond to propaganda that affects the reception of their message.”

    Why do you spell Churches with a capital C? There is only one Church, the Catholic Church. You know that any plural use of churches in the New Testament just described various geographical locations of believers under one and the same authority. You almost admit as much yourself: “… when the Reformation triggered a propaganda war…”

    “Ellul points to three episodes in Church history when this occurred, albeit in ages when propaganda was not fully developed…”

    Why not ChurchES history, to be consistent?

    “Ellul’s answer – which I share – is that being true to the Truth is the very core of Christianity, without which it is better off dead.”

    Amen. I’ve often said I’d rather die than be anything but Catholic.

    “Our job is to seek to do truth.”

    Amen, again. But you can’t DO truth unless you first KNOW the truth.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      First on serious general note – a blog may participate in a propaganda agenda, but can’t in itself constitute propaganda. The business of raising issues for thought and discussion, even if ones views are polemic, mistaken or outright lies, is essentially different from propaganda, which are aimed at replacing thought and real discussion.

      I used capital “C” because although theologically there is one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church, in the nitty gritty world there are separate traditions: small “c” would have suggested separate congregations and misled readers, without a long and unnecessary explanation purely for your benefit, as the only exclusively Roman Catholic contributing here.

      Where I disagree with you (and disagreement ain’t propaganda!) is in the contention that catholic has a capital “C” corresponding to the Roman Church. The Orthodox Church has in my view, as much right to be considered catholic as that of Rome – and given that Pope Francis cited the spirituality of the Orthodox favourably in his encyclical, he clearly has at least some recognition of that.

      But since that’s where Trent parts company with the rest, it will remain a point of disagreement – it would be most hopeful for fruitful dialogue if we take that as read and don’t substitute flag-waving for relevant discussion.

      Don’t read too much into my statment about the Reformation triggering a propaganda war – it was the Roman Church that, by excommunicating the Eastern Patriarch, had started the previous propaganda war. The point is that propaganda always nullifies the quest for truth, on whichever side (or both, or neither) that lies.

  3. Cath Olic says:

    “I used capital “C” because although theologically there is one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church, in the nitty gritty world there are separate traditions…”

    What you seem to be saying is that, apart from a theological ideal, in the nitty gritty world there is NOT currently one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church. You seem to be saying the “separate traditions” either are equally valid or are variously defective (and that YOUR denomination is least defective).

  4. Cath Olic says:

    Then, I don’t know what you’re saying.

    Too bad, for a site which is not into propaganda but rather into “The business of raising issues for thought and discussion.”

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Well you see, Cath Olic, it’s like this.

      A couple of years ago we had a bloke here who called himself Seenoevo. He was a Roman Catholic too and he too, coincidentally, embraced that form of American YE Creationism developed by Adventists and Fundamentalists back in the 1960s.

      The trouble was that he virtually never offered any reasoned arguments but instead, whatever the topic, asked insinuating questions and twisted every answer into an attack on Catholicism, followed by bare assertions about Rome being the only true Church.

      To do him justice, perhaps that was a core part of his faith – I believe the Roman Church may still teach officially that everyone outside its communion is a heretic. But it would have been good if he’d been a bit more Jesuitical and, to be frank, less abusive of our hospitality. It was bad manners and, as apologetics, merely irritating. He reminded me of the College Communist who would join our dinner table and use every piece of conversation as evidence of our fascism.

      But it became clear that he used exactly the same strategy on questions of science and origins, despite the fact that these were not matters of Catholic dogma, and that several Popes now have been comfortable with old-earth science and even with an admirably circumscribed form of guided evolution that’s close to what many of us here accept. He offered no constructive comment on the arguments made, but just fired pointed questions intended to trip up the replier into a confession of godless evolutionism and/or criticism of Rome.

      So we had to conclude, reluctantly, that our friend Seenoevo was willfully bigoted on every issue we were likely to discuss, a pattern he’d also shown on BioLogos. We could learn nothing from him, and he had no intention of learning anything from us. So I took the rare step of banning him from the site (and blocking a couple of attempts to rejoin under other pseudonyms). I now find myself afraid of history repeating itself, and of my giving the appearance of being anti-Catholic, when in fact I’m only anti-boorishness.

      And that’s why I don’t think attempting to discuss the biblical view of catholicity with you would be fruitful.

      • Cath Olic says:

        “The trouble was that he virtually never offered any reasoned arguments…”

        Jon, could you direct me to a piece of yours in which you offer reasoned arguments for your statement that “… although theologically there is one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church, in the nitty gritty world there are separate traditions” and implication that none of the “separate traditions” is THE one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church?

        No need to discuss it further here and now with a boor like me. But, if you would, just direct me to a prior essay of yours in which you discuss it. Hopefully, it will also deal with 1 Tim 3:15.

        Thanks for your hospitality.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          Hi Cath Olic

          I’ve actually never had cause to write such an essay (probably because I’m post-Vatican 2 and have always enjoyed good fellowship with Catholics, having shared Bible studies, co-organised evangelistic events etc).

          But minimal Googling showed a couple of good places to start, the first from a noted nineteenth century Reformed theologian, and the second from a post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic priest-theologian. What is most interesting to me, taking into account the differences of historical and ecclesiological viewpoint, is their agreement on the theology of catholicity itself, which was what I was trying to convey in my non-reply to you.

          Incidentally neither writer speaks specifically to 1 Tim 3.15, but both cast enough light on the spiritual nature of the true church to show why it isn’t a problem text. I guess if someone were disposed to argue that the text demands an authorised organisation as “The Church”, then I’d go into provocative mode and point out that since Timothy was in Ephesus in Asia before the Great Schism, his ordinations would be the ancestor of the Eastern Orthodox, not the Roman Catholic, Church.

          That’s not a vacuuous point, either, because it’s hard to refute the Eastern writers who say, “How come Rome claims the Church Fathers as Catholic? They were Orthodox.” It would be a fool who, in response, started dividing them into Latin-speaking Catholics and Greek-speaking Orthodox.

          Anyway, enjoy the studies. By the way, you’re still welcome to partake of the hospitality here, just as long as you avoid Seenoevo’s boorishness!

          • Cath Olic says:

            I think I could make several points on your brief reply, but I’d rather just reiterate my question: Could you direct me to a piece of YOURS (i.e. not someone else’s) in which you offer reasoned arguments for your position that none of the “separate traditions” is THE one catholic, apostolic and orthodox Church?

            • Jon Garvey says:

              Well that’s easy.

              I repeat my last reply: I’ve never had occasion to write one. It seems unreasonable for you to expect that I should have, and to refuse to consider those reasoned arguments coming from others.

              • Cath Olic says:

                My mistake.
                I must have overlooked your early statement that you never had cause to write such an essay. Or maybe I thought it was a misstatement, given how much you HAVE written on many other theological topics for which you must have had cause to write.

                As to the two essays you provided, I’ve only glanced through them, because I don’t see how their topic (“catholicity”) warrants much thought. It would be a Christian fool who could doubt Christ’s Church could be anything but catholic. That is, catholic in the sense of being intended for people universally, and also in the sense that its teachings are to be taken as true universally or within the “universe” of those who call themselves Christian (e.g. 1 Tim 3:15; Eph 4:5).

  5. GD says:


    To get back on topic, my take is, “How would we as Christians, who are admonished by Christ to seek and value the truth, deal with the way the world uses information and media to manipulate individuals and communities?” I have all too often tried to dismiss the weighty problem such a question poses by saying, “Oh well, it is politics, so we can just ignore it as junk!” But on reflection, we are part of the community and as such we have a responsibility to employ our capabilities to separate truth from falsehood.

    One suggestion I would make is that of seeking information on important matters as this readily available nowadays, and to then use our God given abilities to arrive at a reasonable position, which means we are satisfied (our conscience) that we are speaking the truth, or at the very least, have made every effort to come close to the truth.

    However the present civilisation is saturated with opinions and manipulations of data, and there are times when we can only rely on our faith and divine help to decide between propaganda and cold hard facts. I wish I can be more up=beat, but these days, ironically, are ones of endless information accompanied with greater manipulation and deceit. Perhaps another reason to emphasise faith in Christ as the source of all truth!

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Yes, that has to be right, GD. Not to seek out truth is to be manipulated oneself (not completely avoidable in any case, but can’t be helped). Not to speak it in context is itself sinful – we are supposed to bring error into the light.

      It is probably impossible to correct the propaganda at mass-level, but we can still speak to individuals, and by grace some will respond and be blessed.

  6. Jon Garvey says:

    Cath Olic

    If two notable scholars are not worthy of more than a glance from you, I’m glad I didn’t have anything of my own to offer, as you wouldn’t have got past the title, it seems. For some strange reason, it’s exactly how I thought you’d respond.

    • Cath Olic says:

      Based on your latest response, I decided today to give the first scholar more than a glance.
      He starts out fine, but then goes downhill quickly.
      “The Roman principle, at bottom Pelagian, is an “add-on” or supplementary system…”
      That, and what immediately followed, was so false, so bad, I gave up reading any more of the piece.

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