In the world's great religions there is an insistence that adherents seek and speak truth. Yes, people may and often do have honest differences about what is true and what isn't, but they are obliged, nonetheless, to uphold the truth as they understand it and be open to adjusting their ideas of truth as more information becomes available.
But in the last several decades, the very idea that there is truth has been challenged in many ways. As David Frum points out in his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, the term "post-truth" began to circulate in the 1980s. The idea was that there can be no single truth. Instead, there is just your narrative and mine and no good way to judge between them. (In some ways, Werner Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle" forecast this when he first proposed it in the 1920s as a way of alerting us to the unpredictable and radically volatile nature of reality at the subatomic level. Truth, as Heisenberg saw it in scientific terms, seemed to be an unpredictably shifting concept.)
"But," writes Frum, a Republican whose book has almost nothing at all good to say about Donald Trump, "if there is no truth, there can be no lying. And suddenly Americans are appreciating that 'lying' is a concept very badly needed by democratic politics. Americans are discovering that it's important also to distinguish between the normal tools of the politician's trade -- evasion, equivocation, the timely change of subject -- and the inversion of reality that is routinely heard from Donald Trump."
And Frum is right to note that, as we've learned from past leaders of other nations, "a leader who lies constantly can destroy a nation's perception of reality. . .Trump's incessant lying has indeed warped the minds of his core supporters. . .(M)ore than half of Republicans have accepted Trump's false claim to have won the popular vote; only 9 percent of Republicans acknowledge that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election." (That poll on the popular vote happened in December 2016; my guess -- and my hope -- is that the number of self-deceived Republicans on that score now is less than half.)
We have entered a political era in which the value that religion places on truth needs to be spoken clearly and often in the public square. And I'm not talking here about sometimes-exclusivist propositions that individual religions hold as truths. One for Muslims would be that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. One for Jews would be that the Lord is one, as declared in the Shema. For Christians, one would be that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
No, I'm talking simply about the commitment of all religions to honesty, to integrity, to avoiding deception.
Sacred writ is full of words about the importance of truth. Some quick examples:
-- The Apostle Paul wrote this to the fledgling church at Corinth: "Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth."
-- In surah (chapter) 33 of the Qur'an it says that "for those who reject the truth He (God) has prepared a painful torment."
-- And, of course, one of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures says, "Do not testify falsely against your neighbor." And our "neighbor," of course, is everyone.
When the Trump era ends, there will be much damage to repair, as Frum notes, and one such repair will have to do with truth: "A post-Trump GOP will need to get serious again about honesty in government, after Donald Trump's immolation of ethical standards. . .Many Republicans and many conservatives have played honorable individual parts against Trump. But they formed an embattled and ultimately unpopular minority. Many of them -- perhaps even most of them -- ultimately succumbed to the imperatives of party, pocketbook or peer group. Trump has contaminated thousands of careers and millions of minds. He has ripped the conscience out of half of the political spectrum and left a moral void where American conservatism used to be."
My only edit to Frum's words there would be to suggest we not wait for a "post-Trump" period to stand strongly for truth, for honesty, for integrity. And that means calling out those who traffic in lies now and those who should, but don't, refute the liars. It's one of the important tasks to which people of faith are called, and we delay responding to that call at our own peril.
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CINCINNATI -- While I'm here through the weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item here to the blog each day. Normal blogging will resume after I return to Kansas City next week.