The capacity to rouse a crowd is the desire of every speaker, every religious leader, every politician. From the time of the ancient Greeks it was believed that any person could be trained in rhetoric, the ability to argue a point. A ‘well-trained tongue’ was a tongue that could speak clearly, communicate ideas simply and win the assent of others.
New technologies today combine with ancient arts of persuasion to ‘sell’ things to all kinds of people. Advertising is an industry in itself. In public life, and in times of elections in particular, advertising is a central part of politicians’ campaigns to win over voters to their point of view. In political campaigning the aim is to get people to ‘buy’ one’s ideas, indeed through an election to ‘buy’ one party or candidate over another.
The Church coined the term ‘propaganda’, literally propagating its message during the missionary era through the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Latin: Propaganda Fidei). Today the term has a negative connotation – the passing on of dishonest or manipulative messages to make people believe a certain ideology, at worst a set of false ideas, at best a worldview that ordinary people are expected to accept.
Political campaigning has made propaganda an art used to simplify, and often distort, issues to present the communicator in the best light – and sometimes damn the opponents. Complex issues get packaged into slogans. Problems are simplified into simplistic alternatives: ‘us’ (=good) versus ‘them’ (=bad). The outcome is often election promises which cannot be kept because they are unworkable solutions to problems that haven’t been properly analysed.
South African politics has long been caught up in this kind of rhetoric. Under Apartheid the National Party’s strategy was a brilliant combination of distortions, delusion and fear-mongering: cultural difference was warped into a sense of no possible common ground (distortion), that Apartheid promoted equality and development (delusion) and that the alternative was atheistic communism (fear-mongering). Twenty-five years of democracy has also given in to its own propaganda: promoting inclusivism when needed, playing up race when necessary; embracing modern democracy and traditionalism; and pushing the myth that voting for the opposition is unpatriotic and the slippery slope to the restoration of Apartheid.
Isaiah and Jesus, in contrast, wanted to communicate a simple message – the grace and love of God that cuts through ideology. This is not about imposing ‘The Truth’ (an ideology) but instead an engagement with complex reality, which admits no quick-fix solutions. Starting from the truth of God’s love and God’s call to us to love, we are called to be humble in the solutions we seek, pragmatic in how we act for God’s greater glory and the good of others. When faced with electing leaders, we should examine the rhetoric of candidates and test their claims against reality.
Do we? Or do we allow ourselves to be seduced by simplistic solutions or scare tactics?