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Preaching v. Demagoguery: Learning from Professor Roberts-Miller

Preaching and demagoguery differ. One way to understand their differences is to learn from what Professor Trish Roberts-Miller is teaching this term. Her class on demagoguery now meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the University of Texas, Austin.

Professor Roberts-Miller identifies and describes twenty-one features of demagoguery and I suggest that genuine preaching is the opposite of each of them.  Here they are:

  • Polarization
  • Ingroup/outgroup Thinking, A Rhetoric of Hate
  • Slipperiness on Crucial Terms; God and Devil Terms
  • Demonizing, Dehumanizing, and/or Scapegoating the Out-Group, Especially on Racial, Ethnic, or Religious Bases
  • Simple Solutions
  • Motivism
  • Entitlement, Double-Standard, Rejection of the Notion of Reciprocally Binding Rules or Principles
  • Martyrdom of Rhetor, Personalizing of Criticisms, Rhetor is Synecdochic of Larger Group
  • Apocalyptic, Eschatological Metanarrative (Holy War, Jihad)
  • Denial of responsibility for situation (except lack of vigilance)
  • Refusal to redeem claims
  • An Ethos of Sincerity
  • Heavy Reliance on Fallacious Arguments, Especially False Dilemma, Scare Tactics, Red Herring, and Ad Personum
  • Internal Contradictions
  • Tendency Toward Conspiracy Theories
  • Metaphors of Cleansing, Disease, and War
  • Pandering to Popular Prejudice and Stereotype, Often Racist
  • Bad Science
  • Anti-Intellectualism
  • Misogyny/Appeal To “Traditional” Gender Roles
  • Nationalism 

Although she thinks it is a “fairly minor,” for me her depiction of “anti-intellectualism” is especially helpful. Here is a portion of it:

It’s important to remember that the last thing a demagogue wants is fair and open discussion of issues—the main goal of demagoguery is to keep opposition points of view from getting a fair hearing. (Although they often claim to be in favor of such a discussion, in fact, they do everything they can to prevent it.) Because demagoguery is based in over-simplifying the situation, polarizing the community, and promoting hatred of out-groups, people who advocate careful consideration of the evidence and who can notice and draw attention to the demagogue’s fallacies are actively dangerous for the demagogue’s project.

Conspiracy theories abound:

Not all demagogues are paranoid, but it certainly does come up a lot. I think it arises because there’s a basic logical contradiction—if the solution is obvious, and all good people are in agreement about it, why hasn’t it already happened? How can one explain people who appear to be reasonable and good-willed and who disagree? The answer? They’re in the service of the devil! There is a complicated conspiracy which is thwarting Good.

Metaphors of cleansing follow:

If there is a conspiracy against the good, and if there is some group that is completely responsible for the current situation, then the obvious solution is to get rid of them. Demagogues sometimes make that argument explicit, but sometimes implicit, through their use of metaphors.


If you are not on their side—with all your heart and soul, in all ways and without hesitation—then you are against them. The tendency to put things in these terms greatly simplifies complicated issues (which is almost certainly its main attraction) and implicitly justifies brutal tactics against large groups of people (another attraction for demagogues). It also (almost certainly intentionally) shuts down deliberation, as really good decision-making necessitates considering all the options, and there is almost never a situation in which there are really only two options.

Demagoguery and preaching are themselves not black and white. Every time someone stands before a congregation what he or she says is some darker or lighter shade of gray.  This depends upon how many features of demagoguery the presentation expresses and how intensely.

Here’s the bottom line: Preaching is good news about God; demagoguery is bad news about human beings.

—David Larson is Professor of Religion and Ethical Studies at Loma Linda University.

Art: John Bernhardt, The Demogogue and the Preacher, 1957.

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