“Truthiness” vs. Truth

I’m so thankful to be surrounded by so many friends who are ridiculously smart and just all around nice people. Today’s guest blog post is by my friend, Phil Strickland. With everything that is happening in our world today, his voice as an American evangelical Christian is one that needs to be heard amongst other competing American evangelical voices. His post is insightful and is an invitation for evangelicals to examine how they think and engage with Trump’s presidency based on how the Bible says Christians must think and act. – Sid Sudiacal

 

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Photo: Donald Trump’s first press conference after the election. Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal/Getty Images.

The Bible talks a great deal about the importance of truth and the dire consequences of lying. The world was cursed when man and woman believed a lie and disobeyed God (Genesis 3:1-19). Satan himself is called “the father of lies” (John 8:44), and “all liars” are said to be destined for judgment (Revelation 21:8). However, regarding truth, Jesus tells his followers that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The Holy Spirit’s mission is to guide Christ-followers “into all truth” (John 16:13). The word of God is said repeatedly to be “true,” since God cannot lie (e.g., Psalms 33:4, 119:151; Hebrews 6:18). In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus self-identifies as the very embodiment of “truth” itself (John 14:6). Scripture teaches us that, above all, Christians should be devoted to the truth (e.g., 1 John 5:20).

Let that sobering thought sink in for a moment before you continue reading….

The assertion that “all politicians lie” has become a maxim in our culture — and not without reason. Politicians of all stripes have been known to bend the truth and strain credulity from time to time. Spinning facts to comport with a partisan political agenda is a favored pastime for many Congressmen and women in Washington D.C. and the political operatives who serve as their surrogates in interviews on 24-hour cable news.

However, one thing that became painfully apparent in the recent presidential election is that, as far as politicians go, Donald Trump takes lying to a whole new level. Throughout the election cycle, the non-partisan organization PolitiFact meticulously tracked and evaluated the claims of the candidates running for office. They then ranked those claims based on degrees of truthfulness. During the campaign and following the inauguration, an astonishing 70% of Mr. Trump’s statements have been rated as differing degrees of false, with 51% being rated as simply “false” or “pants on fire.” None of the other candidates from either party even approached the threshold of Mr. Trump’s apparent disregard for the truth. Yet many among the conservative Evangelical right strongly supported Mr. Trump throughout his campaign and remain some of his most vocal supporters still.

There are a variety of reasons why Evangelicals have decided to support Mr. Trump. For instance, many view the Supreme Court vacancy as a potential means of reversing the effects of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Trump’s Evangelical supporters also find hope and security in his sweeping promise to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth.” Many of Mr. Trump’s Evangelical supporters are also experiencing the same kinds of financial hardships as others who have been left behind in the fast-changing, global economy of the 21st century. Donald Trump’s election is, of course, also seen as a way to prevent what is viewed as a further descent into a liberal social order hostile to traditional Judeo-Christian values.

Evangelicals, like other Republican demographics who supported Mr. Trump, have also shown a powerful disdain for the “liberal media.” In fact, recent Gallup surveys show that public confidence in the media has dropped precipitously since the election as only 32% of Americans say they trust the press. Of Republicans surveyed, however, that number was just 14%. While a degree of caution is always warranted when it comes to media consumption, these statistics show signs of a disturbing trend towards an unhealthy skepticism by which even standard reporting of basic facts is easily dismissed as untrustworthy if those facts do not comport with some pre-determined partisan ideological narrative. Such rabid skepticism and hostility towards the press has frequently been stoked by Mr. Trump at his rallies, and again at his first press conference following the election. Mr. Trump’s pugnacious approach to the media is only heightened by the appointment of Sean Spicer, who is already proving himself to be one of the most combative and mendacious White House press secretaries in recent memory. Mr. Trump, in a visit to the CIA, has also falsely claimed that he never criticized the intelligence agencies over revelations about Russian hacking, and that this was a false story peddled by a dishonest media with whom he is at “war.” And now, in a move straight out of George Orwell’s book 1984,  we find Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway promoting some new kind of fantasy reality based on “alternative facts,” even though these “facts” are actually falsehoods easily disproved by real evidence. Americans thus find themselves in an existential crisis. A free press is a constitutionally-protected institution necessary to the preservation of a free and informed society. So, what happens when the press is undermined by the virulent partisan politics of the very society it is charged with protecting?

One problem that contributes to the issues the U.S. is facing is our country’s difficulty with media literacy. While several news organizations are credible, there are other networks and publications on both the “left” and the “right” who have a veneer of credibility that also serves as a conduit for partisan propaganda (e.g., the Huffington Post and Fox News). The internet is also littered with rabidly partisan conspiracy-theory sites that deliberately engage in misinformation campaigns in order to slander politicians seen as enemies and undermine public confidence in the press (think InfoWars, Drudge Report, and Addicting Info). As a result, many Americans simply cannot tell the difference between what is credible and what is not. Additionally, the tribal nature of partisanship in U.S. politics has led to different segments of the American population clustering around only certain outlets for any information that affirms their politics. We now have a problem with people, including many Evangelicals, preferring “truthiness” to truth. Truthiness, a word coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert, according to Webster’s Dictionary refers to “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” It refers to the feeling that something must be true, even without evidence or logic to back it up. Truthiness is truth “from the gut.”

Unfortunately, the current U.S. President also prefers truthiness to truth as well, and to potentially disastrous effect. Mr. Trump, who regularly trafficked in ridiculous conspiracy theories before and during the election, has now insisted that he will spend tax-payer money in order to launch an investigation into (extremely dubious) claims of massive voter fraud for the simple reason that his ego will not allow him to believe the indisputable fact that Hillary Clinton legitimately won the popular vote by a difference of nearly 3 million votes. Because Mr. Trump prefers to believe “alternative facts” instead of the overwheling scientific evidence surrounding the issue of climate change and its causes, he has ordered all references to climate change removed from the whitehouse.gov website and has issued gag orders to a number of government agenices like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service with the goal of censoring out references to climate change from websites and social media feeds (fortunately NASA’s site on climate change is still intact…for now). Mr. Trump, also notoriously refused to accept the consensus verdict of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee as part of a larger influence campaign during the election, causing an obvious rift between himself and the intelligence agencies he must depend upon for U.S. national security — he only just recently has reversed course on this. The President is also convinced — against all evidence to the contrary — that torture works as an interrogation method, and is now musing about reopening CIA black-site prisons and reinstituting torture even though intelligence experts have widely condemned torture as ineffective and immoral (if anyone is an expert on torture, it’s Sen. John McCain — see his comments on the intelligence community’s decision to reject torture). And now, Mr. Trump also refuses to acknowledge the reality that terrorism is by far more of a domestic problem than an immigration problem; yet the fact remains that out of all of the lethal terrorist attacks that have occurred in the U.S. since 2001 none have been committed by anyone on an immigrant visa status, and none have been committed by refugees from Syria. Mr. Trump’s sensational characterization of our current situation as being one of “open borders” and rampant illegal immigration is a total misconstrual of the reality that has existed since the U.S. immigration system was completely overhauled after 2001, and shows a surprising lack of regard or even awareness of the incredible work on immigration and vetting being done by the Department of Homeland Security (the truth is that DHS should be given more credit than anybody else for the fact that another 9/11 type of terrorist attack hasn’t happened since 2001, and for the fact that no fatal attacks have been carried out by vetted immigrant persons). Yet the President issued an executive order indefinitely banning refugees coming from Syria who are seeking asylum even though the order doesn’t touch any of the countries where foreign terrorists who were associated with the 9/11 attacks originated or any European countries where terrorist attacks have happened recently. With one swift stroke of a pen, the President signed the ill-conceived order which soon sent the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and law enforcement officials into mass confusion, and which caused a great deal of needless anxiety for foreign nationals, legal residents, and refugees who had already been thoroughly vetted and properly awarded legal status by the U.S. government (part of the order has been blocked by a federal judge, and similar rulings are being made elsewhere in the U.S.). Lies, including those of the self-deception or truthiness variety, have consequences.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that lying is an all-too-human trait since every human being has lied at some point in his or her lifetime. So, when politicians criticize each other for lying, or when the press criticizes them, all parties should take care not to throw stones in glass houses. However, Evangelicals, as truth seekers, need to be willing to allow real facts (not “alternative facts”) to inform our view of the world. We also need to be able to agree on what the real facts are so that we can have a coherent basis on which to hold both the press and politicians accountable, and by which we can work together to address significant spiritual, moral, and societal problems. There are a number of issues where American society could stand to benefit from greater intellectual honesty from Evangelicals, including problems related to civil rights, immigration, climate change, gun violence and healthcare.

This brings us back to the beginning of this article. The Bible is unequivocal in teaching that Christians should be seekers of truth. This applies to all areas of our lives as Christians, including our media consumption and including our politics. A commitment to the truth, therefore, should always trump (no pun intended) our political ideology. It is imperative that we have the courage of conviction to follow the truth wherever it might lead, even if that truth turns out to be inconvenient. Evangelicals do need to hold the press accountable. However, we also need to hold President Trump and his administration accountable as well, regardless of whether one voted for him and regardless of how wonderful his promises might sound to some people. At some point, reality always has a way of catching up to us, and a dishonest and opaque government is a reality which could have dire consequences for American society, especially for those who are least powerful and most vulnerable. A lie is still a lie no matter who tells it.

 

Phil Strickland is a PhD student at McMaster Divinity College. He spends his days researching, writing, and building Lego sets with his awesome kids.

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