David Mills on Mainline Propaganda
Here is a short press release from the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), of no importance in itself, even as a news story, but useful as an illustration of the sort of propaganda the official agencies provide. In addition to reporting news of the Anglican world, the ACNS advances a certain way of reading the news of the Anglican world: a way that promotes the policies of the seven dwindling Anglican churches of the West and not those of the 31 Anglican churches—the ones in Africa, Asia, and South America—where the church is growing.
The story is only four paragraphs long. Its lead paragraph promises something out of the ordinary.
In the next paragraph the writers explain the “twist” promised in the lead.
The twist turns out not to be much of a twist. The writers found a group that is: (1) protesting the protesters, and (2) not Christian at all. That some pro-homosexualist college students are taking part of a Sunday to support a homosexualist advance is not really news. (And being college students they may not have actually gotten up in time anyway.) The two writers might as well write stories like “Local Beagle Chases Rabbits” and “Toddler Reveals Plans to Play in Sandbox.”
Then they offer an illustration from a young woman who considers herself “very spiritual” but against “organized religion.” (She is almost certainly very much for “organized government,” like the one that gathers taxes to pay for her time at college, but has probably never actually asked herself why religion shouldn’t be organized as well.) When asked, this woman says that she would go to a church that ordained an openly homosexual bishop.
At this point, the experienced reader of such things rolls his eyes. The claim that the church would attract people if only it accepted this or that innovation, here made implicitly, which is by far the best way for a propagandist to make his point, is one of liberalism’s old standards. Whatever the liberal wants to do is, he believes, with a faith that would impress a snake-handler, what the world is really waiting for.
That the Episcopal Church and others have accepted all sorts of innovations and continued to shrink does not stop the propagandist from offering the idea yet again. And he never raises the problem that these churches might gain new people, often of marginal commitment, while driving out established members who have invested themselves in the church, though it is not only a pastoral but a practical problem as well (the established members pay for things).
The girl herself may be a sweet and sincere young woman, playing a new role of the sort college life encourages, but I know too much of human nature—my own not least—to take at face value her declaration of her own great spirituality or her disregard for “organized religion.” It is too much of a standard pose, and much too easy a pose to adopt. It makes you feel good about yourself and costs you absolutely nothing. You can be “spiritual” without having any effective regard for any particular spirit.
And as a Christian, I cannot see that her joining “a church that took this kind of action” would do her much good. What she would find is a religion with which she felt comfortable. It might challenge her in some ways, but not in ways she found all that challenging. It might, for example, call her to some sort of self-discipline—of her finances or her diet, perhaps, but probably not of her sexual habits—though it will present it as a form of self-improvement and a way to this-worldly happiness. She would not be challenged to an ascetic life that would wean her from the passions and desires of this world and make her more truly spiritual.
In this kind of church, she might hear about Jesus for the first time, and even be told she needs a “personal relationship” with him. She will hear bits and pieces of Scripture read from Sunday to Sunday, and she will probably hear the Creed said. She will find out about sacraments. She can be baptized if she wants to be and take communion even if she is not baptized.
And what is wrong with this? some will ask. At least this church has gotten her in the door and given her something she did not have before. The problem with it is that “a church that took this kind of action” looks a lot like real Christianity but is not. It is a counterfeit. It can do the sincere inquirer more harm than good, and do a lot of harm to the seeker who is not altogether sincere.
Becoming a Robinsonian Episcopalian is like giving all your money to someone who offers you twice as much in new bills for it, bills you do not know are counterfeit—though you really did know the deal was too good to be true, but being greedy did not stop to investigate. You may be able to spend a lot of the money before anyone recognizes the fake, but as soon as someone spots a fake twenty in your hand, all you will have is piles of fake money the government is going to take away from you. Now you are broke. You may be in jail to boot. And you deserve to be.
I do not think I need to argue this at any length. Just think what you need to do to Scripture and the church’s moral tradition to make sodomy a good thing and a man who sodomizes his boyfriend an elder and model. (I am sorry to have had to put it so bluntly, but it is best we be clear what the Episcopalians have done.) Then think how, in the sentimental liberal culture in which such Episcopalianism lives, and which itself helped bring Robinson to his present prominence, this distortion will play itself out.
You will have a church that talks a lot about Jesus, but not quite the Jesus presented in the New Testament and certainly not the Jesus for whom St. Paul spoke or to whom the Old Testament pointed. You will have a liturgy, traditional to the untrained eye, but with the traditional theology denatured, neutered, or removed. You will have all the visual trappings of traditional Christianity, from altars to mitres to kneelers to Bibles on the lecterns.
You will have the Scriptures read, but read selectively and then explained in ways compatible with modern sentimental liberalism. And you will have lots and lots of spirituality, and even lots of talk about the Holy Spirit, but the spirit invoked will be an affirming spirit, who affirms sexual liberationism, self-actualization, legal abortion, and the domestic and foreign policy of the Democratic party. And you will have sacraments, reinterpreted as acts of the community and without that Pauline warning about eating and drinking unworthily.
Not, actually, a bad counterfeit of real Christianity. It is good enough to fool people like the young “very spiritual” college student. It will fool her whether she is sincerely looking for God or playing a part. What it will not provide her is a real encounter with the living God. Even if she sticks with it, she may not find out that it is counterfeit until she dies and faces God all on her own.
Having established their interpretation of the matter, in the third paragraph the writers describe the protesters.
This is perfectly fair. It reports an important fact and describes what the people are doing in the way they would put it. But then in the final paragraph, the writers return to advocacy.
The first sentence is clumsily written but true enough. In the next, the writers claim that the protesters are “positioning themselves” while the supporters are “observing . . . a remarkable turning point.” The first group is political and calculating, the second open and celebrating.
And the first group is protesting “what they see” (i.e., it’s just their opinion) “as the demise of traditional scripture” (I think the writers mean the traditional understanding of Scripture in the Episcopal Church). Here you have the conservatives’ claim relativized, even though it would seem fairly obvious to everyone that Robinson’s consecration does deny the traditional understanding of Scripture.
The writers may think it a good thing, but they ought to be honest and admit that it is a new thing. But I have noticed in many similar stories this unwillingness of innovators, when describing the conservative reaction, to admit that they are innovating, though at other times they are happy to announce that God is doing “a new thing.”
Simple honesty should compel them to admit that the conservatives represent the old ways, but I think they believe that admitting that the conservatives have such standing is politically too much of a concession. It is best, they think, to present the battle as one simply of two ways of understanding Scripture and not give the conservatives the advantage of claiming the tradition. If they can relativize the conservatives’ claim to be protecting the heritage, they can then use all their own boasts of inclusiveness, pastoral concern, openness, liberation, etc., to win the public debate.
The story closes with the students with which it began. They “go blank when asked about the view of the Bible on the question” but support the Episcopalians in doing what they are doing, and in fact suggest that they should have done it some time ago.
Having written this sort of thing myself, I suspect the writers knocked out the ending without thinking too clearly about what they were saying. It expresses the mood they wanted to express. These college students, presented as authorities of a sort, at least on what the world wants and needs from the church, are ahead of the church and just want it to catch up. Never mind those boring debates about Scripture.
The writers do not say this directly, but imply it by the placement of the story in the article. The students’ response is the thought they leave the reader with. Putting them at the end says “This matters.”
Such is the sort of propaganda most official news services offer. I am sure their editors and writers do not think of themselves as propagandists, but as fearless truth-tellers who are blessed to be working for a organization with which they agree. They would not get hired for the jobs if they were not. But the reader ought to know what he is getting.
The press release referred to is number 3656, issued on Novermber 1st.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Anglican Pravda” first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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