Words may fall into obscurity for lack of use, even though they refer to realities that still figure prominently in our daily lives. Here’s one that has been little used since the days of the McCarthy hearings: propaganda. We need to blow dust off that word and reacquaint ourselves with what it means, because we are now immersed in it.
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” It comes from the name of the Vatican’s Congregatio de propaganda fide (“Congregation for propagating the faith”), established in 1622 to promote Catholic missionary activity. Eventually, propaganda referred to any large-scale effort to inform the public.
However, the term gained a negative connotation in the late 19th century as European political leaders rallied their people by spreading messages of German national pride, English national pride, Russian national pride, etc. As they ratcheted up their rhetoric, they made ever more outlandish claims that depicted themselves as heroes and their neighbors as villains–even more so when war broke out. California Senator Hiram W. Johnson said at the time, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
We find ourselves in a similar situation. Around the globe, national leaders extol their moral superiority to recruit fanatics who will trample upon their neighbors’ basic rights. They use emotionally charged words to promote their causes and dismiss the claims of others.
As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the power of words. They can rescue, counsel, and encourage. They can also incite bigotry, suspicion of foreigners, and insurrection against the state. Simply because a leader says something emphatically and repeatedly, I cannot assume it is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance” (see 1 Tim. 4:9). Like the people of Berea when they first heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, I need to check today’s propaganda against Scripture to see whether it’s true (see Acts 17:11).