Some years ago a friend of mine who teaches ethics –among other things- in a Christian university told me of an exchange that took place in one of his classes. He was leading his students in a discussion of truth-telling. Unsurprisingly, the question was raised as to whether there were any occasions when we have no responsibility to be truthful. A serious young man was among the first to respond.
“It is always wrong to lie for your own benefit,” he insisted. “But lying to gain political advantage is not wrong. If it is necessary in order to win people over and to stop them from supporting a political party or position you believe is destructive, then lying is morally legitimate.” My friend said he expected that some of his students would provide examples of situations where lying to save someone’s life would be permissible. But politics?
That Christian young man is far from the exception.
As the cynical, misanthropic Dr. Gregory House, of the TV series often said, “Everybody lies.” Yes. None of us are guilt-free when it comes to lying. But everyone doesn’t lie abundantly, shamelessly, and often maliciously. The fact that most of us don’t lie blatantly or continually is because we recognize the importance of telling the truth, even when it is inconvenient. A society will crumble if lying is not looked down upon and if people can’t be counted on to tell the truth the vast majority of the time.
But we have come to expect a certain amount of dissembling from politicians. Fudging the truth to make themselves look better has always been part of the game of electioneering. And not sharing all the relevant information about ramifications of policies they push is virtually expected. Flagrant, unapologetic lying is another matter.
Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37). He called for the unvarnished truth. Jesus went so far as to say the truth would “set you free” (John 8:32). However, we live in a time when many people are convinced power sets us free and any truth that doesn’t lead to power is dispensable. Clearly, that is the case with President Trump who is on track to make 20,000 false or misleading claims by the end of this month.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote of Trump, “His goal, even before he became president, was far more ambitious than to tell mere lies. It was to annihilate the distinction between truth and falsity, to make sure that we no longer share facts in common, to overwhelm people with misinformation and disinformation.” Yet the vast number of white Christians –evangelical and otherwise- have continued to stand with him, defend him, echo his lies and even lie for him.
Sadly, many Christians, both before and since his election, have proven to have a very casual relationship with the truth. But, Frederick Clarkson noted that “various expressions of conservative evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are allied in a long-term war with everyone else. And in this war, lies are a feature, not a bug.” He points to the thinking of theologian, R.J. Rushdoony, the most important figure in the rightwing evangelical Dominionism movement who points to the biblical figure Rahab to justify lying.
Rahab (Joshua 2:1-21) lied on behalf of two Israelite spies she had taken into her home who had come prior to the attack on the city of Jericho by the army led by Joshua. She hid the two and lied to Canaanite soldiers who came in search of the spies. For her help the spies promised that when the city was attacked she and her family would be spared. Rushdoony, and those influenced by his ideas, contend that in war –and that includes culture war- there is nothing wrong with lying in order to win. Such lies are not hypocritical but a righteous necessity.
I’m not convinced Jesus would agree. Shortly before his crucifixion when Jesus was hauled before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontus Pilate, he said to him, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). He wasn’t asking a serious question. He was being dismissive. For him power was more important than truth and that was made clear in the events that followed.
The quest for and preservation of power is evidently more important than truth for some well-known Christians in our time as well.
Sarah Sanders is a notable example. The daughter of Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, she served for two and a half years as White House press secretary. During that time, she developed a reputation for being anything but honest and forthright. No doubt representing the Trump administration while being anything remotely resembling truthful must have been a tremendous challenge.
Vice documented a number of her most notable lies. She claimed FBI Director James Comey’s firing in May 2017 was partly because “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in Comey.” Lie. She later admitted that claim “was not founded on anything.” She claimed 4000 terrorists or suspected terrorists had been stopped at the southern border. Lie. There were six. She claimed that employment for blacks had risen dramatically under Trump in comparison to what had happened under President Obama. Lie. Not even close. And the list goes on.
Evangelical Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is a liar’s liar, saying, “If keeping one’s word is central to one’s character – and it clearly is – then Donald Trump has shown he has far more character than his critics.” Except for those nearly 20,000 documented falsehood? Against all evidence to the contrary, Reed maintains that Trump “freely acknowledges … flaws and mistakes of his past.” In fact Trump doesn’t ask for forgiveness from God or people. Reed insists, “President Trump has ushered in a new era of spiritual renewal and religious liberty.” That claim can be regarded as truth only if exclude Jesus in our understanding of spirituality.
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and of Samaritan’s Purse, has shown himself to be ready and able to lie for political ends. He is deeply devoted to President Trump and refuses to acknowledge his most blatant faults and failings. When asked about the president’s propensity to lie, Graham flatly denies that to be the case. Instead he concedes that Trump may have “misspoken” or that he was “misrepresented.”
Really? The payoff to Stormy Daniels is one of many things about which Trump clearly lied. But Graham has also actually repeated Trump’s self-serving lies, such as this: “The economy of our nation is the strongest it has been in 50 years.” At no point in Trump’s time in office has that been the case, no matter how many time he makes the boast.
Vice President Pence has a name for being a man of faith but that hasn’t stopped him from being a man of deceit. Heaping praise on Trump, he gushed, “You have restored American credibility on the world stage” when in fact there probably has never been a time when the U.S. has been more pitied and disrespected throughout the world. Several weeks ago he lied by saying, “I don’t believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus.”
But Trump had said, “We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully” (January 30). And, “I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along” (February 19). And similar statements could be added. Trump has spewed an abundance of lies in reference to the coronavirus.
But not only “big name” Christians engage in political lying. Ordinary Christians do as well, as evidenced by numerous posts on social media, especially through spreading wild conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, the “deep state,” antifa, or impending Christian persecution.
“The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:22). In his recent book, theologian D. Stephen Long has written, “If speech does not serve truth, it serves only the interests of power….The only way for truth to be served, and thus for the possibility of a just political society, is for persons to be held accountable for their speaking and acting.”
We must not normalize political lying. We must not justify it, make excuses for it, or call it by less pointed names. If we believe Jesus when he said, “The truth shall set you free,” we must insist on nothing less than the truth from the White House to our own houses.