This is -- or, anyway, before Monday holidays, used to be -- Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was born Feb. 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Ky. His later-adopted state of Illinois is where I was born, and we Illinois natives like to claim Lincoln as our own. But Abe was a Kentuckian to start out.
Lincoln wasn't the president who famously (if apocryphally) said, "I cannot tell a lie." That was George Washington, whose Feb. 22, 1732, birth the nation also will note on Presidents' Day, this coming Monday. But both Lincoln and Washington developed reputations for a devotion to truth and honesty. Those habits of the heart are virtues taught by the great religions of the world, though, of course, one can be honest for non-religious reasons.
But people of faith have an interest in promoting honesty for many reasons, including the reality that it's a sign that one has a moral center and can be trusted -- which is what we should want in political leaders. A famous passage about truth in Christianity is found in verses 31 and 32 of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says this to some of his followers: "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
It's the last sentence of that passage that often gets taken out of context and is applied to truth in general (in a way that works, actually, despite the missing context). But in the original, it is another signal that for followers of Jesus truth is not a dogma or doctrine but a person, Christ himself.
In any case, from Washington and Lincoln we have moved through various periods of political leaders who seem attracted to the use of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies, one of whom was impeached (though acquitted) for a lie under oath, Bill Clinton.
But it's hard to imagine a president more addicted to falsehoods that Donald J. Trump. The fact-checking staff at The Washington Post so far has compiled a list of more than 16,000 such statements since he was inaugurated. And various fact checkers were kept busy by the recent State of the Union speech. You can read their assessments here and here.
Well, all politicians lie, right?
Let's not engage in so useless an observation. What we're dealing with here is a political culture of untruth in one of the most religious nations on the planet. What has happened to us? For help with that question, let's turn to Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, authors of a new book, Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office.
"Trump's lies," they write, "are not like those of the traditional presidency. The difference is not just a matter of volume, though the volume is radically different. The lies are also of a different sort.
"They are, for one thing, closely linked to Trump's radical use of presidential speech. . .(T)hey transform what would otherwise be just an endless fireside chat into a persistent presidential disinformation campaign, amplified through Twitter and by the conservative media eco-system. The nature of the president's speech makes it impossible for the press and the public to effectively filter for his dishonesty. . . Trump's specific innovation -- his personal improvement to the devil's invention, if you will -- is brazen pervasiveness in the application of lies to the office of the American presidency. Trump does not just tell lies. He wields a water cannon of lies."
A president who isn't credible creates enormous real and potential problems, especially if there is some kind of international crisis when his or her words would require an assumption of credibility so we could determine how to react.
But over the long haul, what is Trump doing to the office of president by not being credible? Hennessey and Wittes say the first result of his mendacity "is simply the decline in prestige and credibility of the office. . .That means allies cannot rely on America's word."
The problem is that Trump doesn't seem to be paying much of a price for his untruthfulness, as all but one Republican senator demonstrated when they voted to acquit him of the charges in the articles of impeachment. Beyond that, if Trump can get away with lying, shouldn't the rest of us be able to? The value of truth itself becomes a casualty.
And if, as scripture says, the truth will make us free, what do lies do? They put us in bondage. In the end, that's what's at stake here. That's why we need whistleblowers. That's why we need a genuinely free and fair press. That's why we need religious leaders who condemn public lies instead of looking for ways to defend them.
The price we'd pay by accepting wall-to-wall lying as reasonable behavior on the part of a president -- or anyone with power -- would be enormous and would leave us morally bankrupt as a nation. If this continues, that's where we're headed.
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NEED A PREACHER? HERE ARE SEVEN FROM ONE FAMILY
I pass along this story from Michigan just because I like it. Six sisters were ordained to be pastors on the very same day in the very same ceremony. The six have one brother who already is ordained. I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I think it made me a better human being than I would have been otherwise. My guess is these sisters' brother feels the same way.
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P.S.: Recently here on the blog I listed upcoming events for this year's "Give Seven Days" commemoration. Since then organizers have flipped dates for two of the events. The annual walk now will be on Sunday, April 26, while the Iftar gathering will be the next day.
- ONWARD Day - Kindness Walk @ The National World War I Museum and Memorial, Sunday, April 26, 6 p.m.
- GO Day - Go to a Ramadan Iftar; engage in interfaith dialogue @ The Islamic Center of Johnson County, Monday, April 27, 6:30 p.m.