By Riley Case of the Confessing Movement in the UMC
One of the great prophetic thinkers of the 20th century was Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and Christian who wrote not only great Christian theology but penetrating sociological analysis. He had disciples from both the political and religious left and the right (as I recall he was a favorite of William Stringfellow).
In his book The Technological Society (1954, translated into English 1964) Ellul argues that the social, cultural, economic and political impact of technology is bringing accelerated changes that humankind will not easily be able to control. He was writing in the age of television and the developing computer (yet to come was social media, Facebook and Twitter). Those who control the technology will direct the changes and one should not assume that the changes will always be for benevolent reasons. He spoke of a willingness of societies to trade religious and traditional understandings of truth and morality for the strongly held beliefs and prejudices of individuals and groups who could control and manipulate technology.
Ellul followed The Technological Society with the book Propaganda. Propaganda is linked with technology like a Siamese twin. Propaganda is the use of whatever means are possible to move society toward a plan of action. The means may be honorable or not so honorable. When not so honorable it is not usually because of outright lies but rather of narratives of half-truths parading as established truths. According to Ellul, propaganda works because it understands humankind to not be mature, rational, objective and neutral, but rather fragile, sinful, malleable, uncertain of self, and ready to follow strong voices that offer assurances and meaning in life. Advertisers do business on these assumptions, as do governments, political parties and even religion.
One interesting contribution Ellul makes to the understanding of propaganda is that education makes persons not less but more susceptible to propaganda. Intellectuals and educated persons are more vulnerable to propaganda because they 1) absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information; 2) they feel compelled to have an opinion on every important question of our time; 3) they consider themselves capable of “judging for themselves” truth from error. In other words they are more apt to trust their own judgments and less apt to accept outside authorities, whether religion or tradition or the prevailing culture or the government, for what is good and right and beautiful. He predicted what we are seeing today: the autonomous self posing as the authority for morality and truth.
Today technology in service to propaganda is developing faster than even Ellul could have imagined. This has not brought stability and happiness for society but chaos and division. We may be more divided as a nation today than ever before. We are not only overwhelmed in politics with “fake news,” half-truths and sometimes outright lies but also in culture and even religion. Strong voices call into question our old established authorities, whether traditional culture, religion, the family, or institutions we have always relied upon. For the first time since the time of the founding fathers fewer than half of U.S. adults (45%) are extremely proud to be Americans (compared with surveys that reported between 69% - 79% fifteen years ago). Last year 47,000 persons committed suicide, a rate of 14 per 1,000 persons, up from 10.5 per thousand persons in 1999. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. exceeded 70,000 in 2017, 6,600 more than in 2016. The approval rating for congress is lower than it has ever been. With the growing mistrust of institutions comes the loss of objectivity and neutrality in public media.
This is background for a discussion of what is happening in the United Methodist Church, specifically regarding views of human sexuality. Not only is the American church abandoning its long-established stance on Biblical morality, marriage and the family, it is doing so at a pace that in any other time would have been unimaginable. It is much bigger simply than views regarding homosexual practice. Under pressure are views about celibacy before marriage, transgenderism, polyamory, and the importance of the family. It is not insignificant that in my conference a petition requesting the deletion of negative language about homosexual practice also included a request for the statement on the family to be removed. It is the contention of this article that these rapid changes are best understood in the analysis of technology and propaganda. How does this work?
Secular politics offers a clue. Several years ago Indiana signed into law the Religious Restoration Freedom Act. The bill was immediately interpreted as a homophobic attack on gay “rights” in the name of religion (such as if a baker refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding reception). Suddenly Indiana became a major battle ground in a larger war against Christian morality. Big money flowed in, including money from major corporations. Companies threatened to pull out of Indiana. Hollywood stars and People magazine-types declared they would boycott Indiana. The business of the state senator who sponsored the bill was boycotted. Even the NCAA (headquartered in Indiana) threatened to leave. Meanwhile it was pointed out that Indiana had no history (at least no more than any other state) of discrimination. No major services had been denied to gay couples as far as anyone knew. So, a search was conducted to uncover examples of hatred which supposedly prevailed in the state. At length a reporter from the South Bend Tribune uncovered an example of “hate” in a mom and pop pizza parlor in Walkerton, IN. Asked by the reporter whether the pizza parlor would cater a gay wedding the owner responded, “I think not.” Within six hours, thanks to social media, the pizza parlor (which had never catered pizza to any wedding reception) had to close. A nearby school teacher tweeted, “Let’s burn the place down.” A columnist wrote in the Indianapolis Star, “Pizza Served with Hate.” Indiana changed its bill. What is more discouraging than the brutal tactics involved is that a number of prominent denominational leaders joined in the piling on.
Likewise, in the United Methodist Church. For over a hundred years modernism, liberalism and progressivism have prevailed among Methodism’s ruling class, which includes the seminaries, boards and agencies, bishops and some pastors of large churches. Whatever it was that divided us in those years the church was united in its views of human sexuality as taught by the church through the ages. No longer. There is now a part of the progressive church that is so caught up in the sexual revolution that it would baptize the sexual permissiveness of the day. This issue has become so contentious that it has turned into a larger debate that threatens to re-define and deconstruct our understanding of the Bible and the nature of the faith. We seem less interested these days in our understanding of Truth and of Salvation through the cross of Christ, than in inclusion, diversity, contextualization, and experience and reasons as the sources of authority.
And so the half-truths: God is revealing new truth and progressives are the ones qualified to receive and interpret this new truth; the Bible was wrong on slavery and so it has also must be wrong on marriage and sexuality; General Conferences have been wrong and hateful in the Social Principles statement on human sexuality and marriage; likewise the church’s Discipline has been wrong in the way it defines marriage and in its call for celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage; the traditional emphasis on the family is misplaced and does not reflect reality. Culture is ahead of the church on these matters and the church needs to catch up. Furthermore, these things are suddenly of such importance that persons, Boards of Ordained Ministry, bishops, and whole conferences are justified in breaking covenant and rejecting historic church teaching. All of this is in the name of love which evidently is the motive behind disruptive demonstrations, boycotting those with different views, joining gay pride marches, and apologizing to the world by way of newspaper ads and other public statements (after the 2019 General Conference) for the church’s hatred because it upholds traditional morality.
What is the evangelical response? For one thing, we need to be cautious about our own ability to be reasonable and objective. We share in humankind’s fallen nature. We speak from a perspective. That perspective is the truth of the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ and recorded in Scripture. We do not (at least so we claim) rely on our own experience or reason to interpret that gospel but on the tradition of the Church universal. In our case the tradition runs through historic Methodist doctrine. We recognize that Christian ethics is an ethics of means rather than ends. We agree with many persons and ideologies that we seek the Kingdom, a world of harmony and justice. We disagree about means to accomplish that goal. We claim love as the means by which we live out our faith. Our love may differ from the definition of others. We are reluctant to boycott, threaten, bully and disrupt because we do not believe love acts in that way.
May God guide us in the days to come.