Review & Giveaway: Ministers of Propaganda - Word&Way

Review & Giveaway: Ministers of Propaganda

Oh, no; not another book on the Religious Right. Isn’t the troubled racial history that animated the movement’s rise quite clear? Haven’t we already documented their influence within the Republican Party? Don’t we understand their embrace of Christian Nationalism pretty well? This is a group that garners inordinate attention in our public life, with increasingly little ground in terms of their history, leaders, and influence that’s been left unexplored.

That saturation makes Scott Coley’s forthcoming book Ministers of Propaganda: Truth, Power, and the Ideology of the Religious Right all the more impressive. Drawing on his philosophical training, he interrogates the rhetoric historically used by Religious Right figures and institutions to uphold and defend oppressive social hierarchies. He also sounds the alarm about the increasing embrace within the movement of Christo-authoritarianism and the way it utilizes propaganda to inoculate itself from critiques of this dangerous ideology.

Coley outlines a framework with three core elements. First, there’s a social hierarchy that is problematic (e.g. White supremacy, patriarchy). Those who benefit from it need to provide a moral justification for the arrangement. So, second, they offer legitimizing narratives that provide a validation of the status quo. Third, these narratives are accepted because of the human propensity to engage in motivated reasoning, where we are inclined to accept arguments (and reject others) that serve our self-interest.

For evangelicals, faith is implicated when it is used as a tool — like biblical proof texting — to support the legitimizing narratives. And in the service of propaganda that supports this whole ideological structure by co-opting principles and values in order to undermine them.

All of this can seem very abstract, so let’s consider an example that Coley cites: White supremacy. This ideology promotes a social structure where one group (Whites) enjoys social power over others. In the antebellum South, this social hierarchy was legitimated through the use of biblical citations like Genesis 9. These interpretations were easy to believe by those who enjoyed privileges from the unjust social order. Moreover, the concept of liberty was propagandized to protect the “right” of the enslaver instead of serving the cause of freeing those who were enslaved.

Fast forward to the present day. Coley sees the same dynamics at play around the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and other countries. Christian faith is regularly utilized to justify social practices and ideas in support of minority rule where political, economic, and social power remains in the hands of a White privileged male elite. This reality is not surprising, but the book illuminates the ways evangelical faith contributes to the ideological game.

(Luis Morera/Unsplash)

In the book’s final chapter, Coley shifts from his effective critiques to articulating what resources Christian faith holds for rejecting such authoritarianism. He adeptly turns basic evangelical convictions about truth claims and moral order back on those who have engaged in relativistic thinking for self-serving reasons.

“We can resist the forces of ideology and motivated reasoning by actively interrogating the legitimacy of social arrangements that work to our own benefit, which is precisely what Christ calls us to do,” he writes in conclusion. “Thus the antidote to Christo-authoritarianism is the pursuit of justice over and against the pursuit of social arrangements that reinforce my own power and privilege.”

Given the weight of these topics, you would be correct in surmising that this book is not a light read. Coley covers a lot of ground and asks the reader to invest the energy required to join him in that intellectual journey. Still, there’s a lot to be gained from expending the effort because the stakes are so high and these forces are so strong.

Indeed, it’s worth naming that both Coley and his publisher, Eerdmans, took a risk in sharing this book with the world. The provocative nature of the argument means both the author and the publisher are likely in for some pushback from the very communities to which they speak. Expressing these truths is a courageous act in our ever more polarized and authoritarian age.

The best way to verify that this review isn’t just propaganda is to read the book yourself. Coley has generously agreed to provide a signed copy to one lucky paid subscriber of A Public Witness. So upgrade today and you might find a copy of Ministers of Propaganda headed your way!

As a public witness,

Beau Underwood

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