Back in 2008, I released a mildly controversial book called Coffeehouse Theology, which argued that arrived at “truth” is more complex than we might expect.
I say it was mildly controversial because I interacted with postmodern thinking without dismissing it out of hand. I suggested that we could stand to learn from a wider range of perspectives, rather than assuming, for instance, the white western male perspective has a corner on the truth.
I didn’t say “there is no truth.” Rather, I tried to say, “There is a lot of truth, and we need more perspectives to get a better handle on it.”
A few people wrote emails to me about how disappointed they were, a few people wrote critical reviews of the book, and at least one sermon decried my perspective, but all in all, I wasn’t excommunicated from the faith. It was more like a bunch of people who preferred “absolutes” and capital T Truth stopped paying attention to me.
While I spent a good bit of time trying to explain to folks the limits of what we could know, I was still very much committed to the idea of truth, of a shared reality, and of some common facts and ideas that we could all hold without argument.
I never in a million years imagined that I would have to one day write a blog post about the ways the lies of a leader–a leader supported by many Christians who used to argue for absolute truth–threatens to undermine our society, our faith, and our notion of shared ideas and facts that bind us together.
What Is the Problem with Lying?
The problem with lying, or bearing false witness against our neighbors if you’re a 10 Commandments fan, is that consistent lying by a group of people can have the effect of creating an alternate version of reality. If enough people from a political faction buy into the alternate version of reality, they can frame it as partisan preference, not blatant lying.
If one group of people decide to bear false witness against their neighbors, then opposing them can be framed as a partisan rejection of the group, not a dispute about the facts. The more people a leader can convince to accept his lie, the more power that lie generates.
This calculation is a long-standing tactic in seeking political power and control through dividing people.
Consider the early days of 2017 for instance when a few small lies set the stage for the thousands of documented lies that followed.
The pictures of the inauguration proved beyond all doubt that it was sparsely attended compared to expectations, and it was especially sparse when compared to the same shots of past inaugurations. Yet, we were told over and over again that there were huge crowds.
The press secretary even told us that there were “alternate facts” during his press conferences. Alternate facts is just another way of saying “alternate reality.”
Then, despite losing the popular vote and squeaking by in the Electoral College with wins in 3 states by a margin of about 70,000 votes total, we were told over and over again that it was a huge margin of victory.
These were mundane lies, perhaps even insignificant lies, but they were the early stages of creating an alternate reality. Anyone could look at pictures and public records of statistics and spot the lies being told.
Yet, these were just setups for bigger lies, including lies targeting evangelical Christians about the threat of persecution in America if Democrats rose to power. Such lies conveniently forgot that many Democrats are practicing Christians, Democrats have never shown any inclination toward persecution when they’ve been in power, and such a radical agenda would be political suicide in America.
Soon the small lies about the inauguration size or the persecution of Christians became a web of lies creating an alternate reality where Trump was the great champion of Christianity–despite several first-hand accounts of him slandering them in private.
The future of Christianity somehow became tied to Trump, and therefore any cruelty in his policies or any violations of the law were excused because of the “greater good” of saving Christians in America from persecution.
This whole notion is patently absurd, but enough lies have been stacked up year after year to the point that some are swept up in the narrative of this alternate reality where Christianity hinges on a guy with over twenty credible allegations of sexual assault and an official policy of kidnapping children from their asylum-seeking parents.
This Isn’t a Partisan Problem. It’s a Truth Problem
I could rattle off a list of people who are considered conservative in America today and who also affirm absolutes and our shared reality. This isn’t really a partisan issue, even if it has been framed that way by right wing media and some politicians.
My intention isn’t to choose one side of politics. In fact, if you look at many conservatives who are now out of office, they are alarmed by this attempt by right wing politicians and media to reshape reality.
Truth and a shared reality are important because Christian mission needs a kind of shared reality or at least an understanding of common ground.
Consider that so many Christians spend their time worrying about the evil persecution schemes of Democrats or praising the wonderful pro-life agenda of Republicans while seeking to end the Affordable Care Act that so many depend on for health insurance.
As author Ed Stetzer has noted, Christians have a massive credibility problem if they are motivated by ideas that are simply not true. Even worse, Christians have justified truly harmful policies on the basis of a false perception of the world.
Can you imagine someone trusting a Christian with the message of eternal life if these same Christians can’t even see the ways that fabricated threats of Christian persecution have been pushed for years by politicians seeking to win their votes?
I know that may sound like a hard word for some Christians to hear, but this is what’s at stake when an alternate version of reality is being offered.
Sadly, too many politicians on the extreme political right have created or tolerated an alternate version of reality that will have a long-lasting impact on the credibility of Christians for years, if not generations, to come.
The good news is that we get to choose who our leaders are.
However, if we choose an alternate reality for now, it will eventually fall apart. If we want to be taken seriously in sharing “the truth” of the Gospel, we better make sure we are living in the same version of reality as the rest of the world.