During the closing months of the war a growing band of desperate (German) people began pinning their hopes on the astrological sheets. Since these were dependent on the Propaganda Ministry . . . they were . . . used as a tool for influencing public opinion. Fake horoscopes spoke of valleys of darkness which had to be passed through, foretold imminent surprises, intimated happy outcomes. Only in the astrological sheets did the regime still have a future.

This week's sermon is about the current, many-sided flap over propaganda in Washington, and I take as my text no less an expert than the late German war-criminal/penitent Albert Speer. Speer is recounting here the lengths to which Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, went to control the thoughts of the German people and keep them from figuring out politically disruptive truths. The nature of this operation--hidden, sinister, manipulative, deceptive and, somehow, insinuated into the tiniest and most trivial crannies of the unsuspecting citizen's life--has struck me since I read of it as summing up almost perfectly what we in this country are so afraid of when we talk of government propaganda.

And we talk of it all the time these days: from Reagan speeches to imported movies to American efforts to organize democratic political activities overseas, everything seems to be coming up "propaganda." I think this is too bad, because the notion, so all-inclusive and hit or miss in its application, is getting in the way of some basic ideas.

Actually the word simply refers to the propagation of some particular doctrine or view, or, as we should say, "pushing" or "promoting" or "selling" somebody's line. Already, even in these relatively straightforward terms, the feeling comes across pretty strong that you are in the presence of baloney. Thus, the labeling, for example, of those three imported Canadian films as propaganda has been generally received not merely as a pronouncement on their origin and sponsorship, but also as a denigration of their worth. This is what we mean by "propaganda" at best, when we are being comparatively polite about it.

More than the imprint of Dr. Goebbels on our collective consciousness generates the hostility. There is also the whole national anxiety--reasonable in some respects, exaggerated in others--about hidden-hand advertising and promotion techniques, subliminal motivation and the rest. Great numbers of us seem certain most of the time that we are about to be "behavior modified" into buying all sorts of products--including products we put in Congress or the White House--that are not what they are advertised to be and which we don't especially need anyway. It's good, healthy skepticism, and we apply it as brutally to government flaks and officials trying to peddle a line as we do to commercial hucksters trying to peddle a new floor wax. It's no accident that various statutes establishing overseas-directed federal agencies, such as the Voice of America, specifically forbid these agencies to push their wares on Americans or otherwise to "propagandize" the home folks.

The problem, of course, lies in distinguishing between propaganda as we have in common usage defined it--i.e., government-produced hogwash--and those things a government official might just say that are true. Even here there are some popularly imposed, informal limits. Ever since that day in first grade when we all learned we weren't supposed to keep talking about how wonderful we were or, worse yet, to vote for ourselves in the class election, it has been drummed into Americans that there is something suspect and unseemly, not just unconvincing, in the government's or the country's tooting its own horn. So perhaps a kind of misplaced modesty originally inspired this belief, along with cringing embarrassment over the noisy jingoism and boastfulness of some of our countrymen. But a few bad political experiences have also by now reinforced the apprehension many feel when politicians start recounting our national virtues.

For one thing, we know about patriotism's being the "last refuge of a scoundrel": Samuel Johnson's dictum has become a clich,e. We have also seen the way a kind of mindless love-it-or-leave-it approach can squelch criticism, deform debate and be used to cast doubt on the loyalty of the critics. And just as the faultfinding Left sometimes seems able to find absolutely nothing good to say about our poor country, so the tub-thumping Right tends to an extravagance of praise that has no basis in reality and devalues the coin as a whole. This extravagance, of which our president is an unabashed practitioner when he feels like it, can also frighten people with the implication some think the speakers intend to convey that since we are so good and the Russians are so bad, we really could be forgiven for vaporizing them.

What a huge and hopeless collection of cautions and burdens all this imposes on the government official or the private citizen who wishes to utter a simple, upbeat, true thing about the basic strengths or values of this country. First, you have to qualify it to death with all the things you know are wrong. Then you have to say you don't mean it as a call to war. Then . . . well, by then, what the hell?

This is the part that bothers me. Some of us have become self-conscious and afraid to espouse or defend American democratic virtues wholeheartedly and out loud. And we have become equally skittish about saying what is self-evidently true of the--yes--evil of the Soviet system of repression. That system represents the antithesis of liberal values, and yet it is widely thought know-nothing to say so and downright imperial to wish to find peaceful means by which to share the better parts of our democratic legacy with those who still have a choice. Even on those odd-numbered days of the week when Reagan addresses these things without hype, people are uncomfortable: look out, here comes the propaganda!

I have no illusion that we will be sorting all this out any time soon. My only thought is this: what a cruel irony it is that our determination to protect ourselves against fraudulent speech and ideas has resulted, among other things, in our being afraid either to articulate or acknowledge certain simple, central--really all-important--truths.