Jim McClung and I spent Tuesday afternoon in the archives at Earlham College, digging through old minutes from 1941, the year Fairfield Meeting purchased our brick parsonage from the Mendenhall family for the princely sum of $1,200.00. We also discovered when Frank Gladden and his family became members of the member, and I learned Frank’s middle name, which I won’t reveal if certain financial criteria are agreed upon and met.
Whenever I’m at Earlham, I think of my old friend, Tom Mullen, who taught there and is now deceased, but while living taught me the Earlham fight song, a rather ironic chant, repeated by generations of Earlham students. The teams were known as the Fighting Quakers and their fight song went like this:
Fight, fight, inner light!
Kill, Quakers, kill!
Beat ’em, kick ’em, knock ’em senseless!
Do it til we reach consensus!
So it’s been an interesting week, a week of learning new things and remembering old things.
Recalling the fight song caused me this week to reflect on the power of slogans and chants, and their ability to reduce, often inaccurately, our most fervent desires to a handful of words.
There’s an old-time word called sloganeering, which means trying to persuade people by repeating phrases instead of explaining your ideas or offering evidence. Sloganeering. The idea being that if you get people to believe your slogan and repeat it often enough, they will eventually accept it as truth, whether it is true or not. This is the purpose of sloganeering. It won’t surprise you to learn that sloganeering is mostly employed by politicians, preachers, and advertising agencies. Make America Great Again and Yes We Can are examples of political slogans. Religious slogans include God Helps Those Who Help Themselves! and Christianity Is the Only True Religion! Examples of advertising slogans are Nike’s Just Do It! and M&M’s Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hands!, which is not true. But remember, slogans don’t have to be true to be effective. They only have to be memorable.
The good thing about slogans is their ability to convey powerful ideas in just a few words. The bad thing about slogans is their ability to convey powerful ideas in just a few words. Slogans are harmless if you’re talking about tennis shoes or M&Ms. Slogans are dangerous when the cultural moment requires us to think deeply and carefully, when circumstances need our full and committed attention, and simple buzzwords that misrepresent reality simply won’t suffice. Even Jesus realized the inadequacy of slogans. “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” What is that, if not a rejection of meaningless, misleading language?
As Quakers, we value plain-speaking and truth-telling, so must transcend the temptation to cloud the truth with catchy phrases whose purpose is to mislead, inflame, or divide. When I was watching the debate the other evening, I noticed how the use of certain slogans drew either cheers or jeers from the audience, and how often a candidate’s performance was judged by their ability to mislead, inflame, or divide. This says something about us. It says too many of us are moved and inspired not by reason, compassion, and thoughtfulness, but by clichés, half-truths, and party-lines.
This happens not only in politics, but in religion. When I was in my late teens and developing an interest in spirituality, I worked with a man who asked me if I’d “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and was going to heaven when I died.” I asked him what that meant, because we didn’t use language like that in the Roman Catholic tradition in which I’d been raised.
“If I have to tell you,” he said, “then you aren’t.”
In one fell swoop, his devotion to religious slogans killed our conversation. This is the peril of sloganeering. It claims to bring light, it claims to illuminate the darkness, it claims to simplify the complex, even as it kills the thought, closes the door, and silences the other. When that happens, sloganeering becomes something far more dangerous—propaganda.
In his nasty little book, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler said, “Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people…It must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed.”
On the heels of WWII, the civilized world was mystified how the same nation that produced Schleiermacher, Brahms, and Beethoven, how a nation as cultured and educated as Germany could commit such horrific evil. In hindsight, we can answer that question in one word: propaganda, with its insidious power to turn otherwise kind and thoughtful people into everything they once despised. Our calling as Quakers is to resist with all our might the casual dismissal of morality, is to resist with all our might the temptation of easy answers to complex matters, is to resist with all our might the easy road of hatred over the difficult path of love. Our calling as Quakers is to resist with all our might those whose grasp of truth is so feeble, whose commitment to virtue so tenuous, they would lead us astray with slick slogans and paper-thin promises.
When Jim and I were at Earlham, I noticed a wooden bowl on a shelf. There was an inscription on the bowl that explained how the bowl had been made from a piece of the elm tree under which Quaker William Penn signed a treaty with the Delaware tribe in 1682. The tree was brought down in a storm in the early 1800s and was found to be over 400 years old.
That same year, 1682, Penn wrote a pamphlet called The Frame of Government, in which he wrote, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too.”
So let us together, as humans and as Quakers, make sure our motions are good, make sure our motions are virtuous and thoughtful. Let our motions bring life not death, justice not tyranny, love not hate. Let our commitment be not to parties, nor to propaganda, but to principles and to peace.