Why politicians all too often take to championing cultural sacred cows.

By Michael Gordon
08/15/2020 • 08:10 PM EST

On June 1, 2020, at 7:01 PM, amid the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump walked with his entourage of security staffers and administration officials from the White House, through an area just cleared of protesters, to St. John's Episcopal Church. Upon his arrival, he posed for photos of him holding a bible in front of the church's parish house, which had been damaged by fire during protests the night before. After posing for photos and answering a few questions from reporters, at 7:11 PM, Trump and his entourage departed the church and walked back to the White House.[1]

In the days that would follow, the performance was highly criticized by many Washington-area faith leaders as a cynical misuse of spiritual symbolism. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway defended Trump's spectacle, telling reporters, "It's very unfortunate that people of faith would call into question what is in anyone's heart, including the president's, what compelled him to go over to St. John's and hold up his Bible. The politicization of that by people of faith is very unfortunate."[2]

While Trump's motivation for the visit may be in question, the act he performed in front of the church was a powerful propagandistic function. By way of cognitive association or "transfer," a politician that is seen as championing or defending a cultural sacred cow, like Christianity, can take on the authority, sanction, and prestige of that sacred cow.[3]

Photo taken at St. John's Episcopal church. See official White House produced video. See full unedited version.

As a propaganda technique, transfer can assert, by irrelevant association, the positive or negative qualities of a person, object, or value onto another to make the second more acceptable or to discredit it.[4] When used to discredit someone, transfer takes the form of what is commonly referred to as "guilt by association," which asserts that the negative or unappealing qualities of one are inherently qualities of another, merely by their irrelevant association.[5]  The logical inverse of guilt by association is honor by association.[6] This specific form of transfer involves establishing identification between the person using the technique and the audience's reverence for the sacred cow being championed or defended.

As a slang term, a sacred cow represents a universally revered societal value, person, group, or symbol that is normally beyond criticism or reproach, and regarded so highly that people may often be afraid to criticize it.[7] When used for the purpose of propaganda, sacred cows often come in the form of national or religious symbols, e.g., in the U.S. - the American flag, the bible, or the national anthem, to name a few.[3]

In this MyPillow ad, we see a combination of national and religious symbolism, from top left, the American flag, American bald eagle, the last supper, (from top right) Jesus Christ, a Christian cross on Lindell's lapel, the colors red, white, and blue in Lindell's shirt, jacket, and tie.

When executing honor by association, the exploitation of these cultural sacred cows is fundamental because they prompt strong, reactive emotional responses.[8] By way of transfer, the technique can help politicians insulate themselves against virtually any type of criticism or rhetorical attack.

For example, if a politician is seen championing or defending Christian symbols, by criticizing or attacking him, the critic can inadvertently be perceived as attacking Christianity or even God. If a politician makes himself out to be a staunch supporter of the military, by attacking him, an opponent can be perceived as unpatriotic and hostile to the troops. If that same politician passionately defends law enforcement, by attacking him, a critic can be perceived as hostile, not only to the police, but to the rule of law itself.

Honor by association can also be difficult to expose, even when propagandistic intent is fairly obvious. This is because the user of the technique can always demand the benefit of the doubt, as is demonstrated in Conway's condemnation of critics who would "call into question what is in anyone's heart."[2] While it is indeed impossible to know what's in anyone's heart when championing or defending a sacred cow, the likelihood of propagandistic intent being the true motivator behind the performance increases the more the champion's own authenticity can be called into question.

For example, a politician championing the active military or veterans who has no history of military service or a personal history of dodging military service raises questions of authenticity. A politician championing religious symbolism who has no discernible familiarity with scripture or history of attending religious services raises questions of authenticity. A public performance that comes off as awkward, purely theatrical, highly opportunistic, and/or over the top, also raises questions of authenticity.

So the next time you see a politician, or anyone else for that matter, passionately championing or defending a sacred cow, take the powerful propagandistic function it serves into account. The act of publicly defending a cultural sacred cow can make anyone criticizing the defender, for any reason, seem like they're attacking the sacred cow. That association is unavoidable.

1. "Timeline: The clearing of Lafayette Square". The Washington Post. Published: June 05, 2020.

2. "D.C. faith leaders blast Trump’s Bible photo-op". Politico. Published: June 02, 2020.

3. Various Authors, Propaganda Analysis: Volume II of the Publications of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. Institute for Propaganda Analysis. Published: 1939.
4. Gerald J. Tellis, Effective Advertising: Understanding When, How and Why Advertising Works. Sage Publications. Published: 2004.
5. "Fallacy: Guilt by Association". The Nizkor Project. Published: June 12, 2014.

6. T. Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Cengage Learning. Published: 2008.
7. "What is a Sacred Cow?". LanguageHumanities.org. Published: December 25, 2022.

8. Clyde Miller, How to Detect Propaganda. Institute for Propaganda Analysis. Published: 1937.