Who ya callin’ a liar?

456px-Rembrandt_Harmensz__van_Rijn_079We haven’t seen a bill voted out of the House of Representatives yet, but the culture war about health care reform is in full tilt, with allegations from conservatives that bills will include federal funding for abortions — not to mention “death panels” that will chose who will live, and who will die.

Interestingly, President Obama, instead of attempting to soothe the troubled waters, has chosen to enter the fray at this point with some pretty strong language of its own.

The Presidude got my attention when I heard the way he characterized some of his more outspoken opponents in a phone call with the “religious left” yesterday. It’s fascinating to see how various media outlets have handled the “false witness” call — what they have chosen to emphasize, and what has been left out.

Let’s begin with the lede of the straightforward story from CNN.com:

President Obama appealed Wednesday to faith-based groups to help garner support for his plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

“I need you to knock on doors, talk to neighbors, spread the facts and speak the truth,” he told religious leaders and reporters on a conference call that was streamed over the Web at faithforhealth.org.

“This debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are as a people,” he said. “I believe that nobody in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance.”

Some 140,000 people participated in the call, the coalition of more than 30 faith-based groups that organized the event said in a written statement.

Obama urged the listeners to reject misinformation about his plans, noting, “There are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness.”

As you know, that’s the Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:16): “You will not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In his words to the rich young man in Matthew 19, Jesus also refers to this commandment — in other words, it resonates.

The CNN story really doesn’t identify who is identified with, or who identifies themself as a member of the religious left. Of course, the “religious right” has been putting up with this kind of broad-brushing for decades. Here’s a list of the faith groups behind the campaign “40 Days for Health Reform.” But this still doesn’t give us an idea of the movement’s strength (which probably comes down to how many competitive ads they can run in which markets). Readers can glean some useful information about the make-up of the coalition here but, as with other cable outlets, they must consider the source — and discount the code words. More and more, the burden is on readers to wade through opinion masquerading as fact to get to a few nuggets of information.

Take a look at the story in the New York Times. You don’t often see reporters as experienced as Zeleny and Hulse tip their hand so broadly in the lede (italics mine):

President Obama sought Wednesday to reframe the health care debate as “a core ethical and moral obligation,” imploring a coalition of religious leaders to help promote the plan to lower costs and expand insurance coverage for all Americans

Talk about strong language. Wouldn’t you think, after reading this paragraph, that we have a President who is, at the least, losing momentum on health care reform? The writers spend little time talking about the faith context of the call, apparently seeing it as part of a broader strategy (which it obviously is). Another sign of a possible journalistic consensus is Reuter’s Ed Stoddard’s post on the blog FaithWorld which begins:

U.S. President Barack Obama enlisted the “Religious Left” on Wednesday to help galvanise public support for his faltering drive for healthcare reform, using the language of faith as he accused some of the critics of his biggest domestic project of “bearing false witness.”

It’s very possible that this is the reality –Obama’s health care plans are “faltering.” But it’s also interesting to see how language can help shape reality for those not in the middle of the health care brawl. Stoddard’s also put on an intriguing post on a new ad campaign by the Family Research Council — the conservative group claims that “Obamacare” will help fund abortions.

On the right, CBN News White House Correspondent David Brody sees Obama’s “bearing false witness” comment as a takedown of evangelicals. Meanwhile, on the left, this new coalition is the best thing since sliced bread.

Confused, yet? Sadly, it seems as though the “truth” is going to be very hard to sort out. Consider abortion — will the new bill fund abortions, or not?

Maybe. And maybe not.

One thing we know — the rhetoric and posturing in all sides is going to get worse before it subsides. And there either is going to be a health care bill — or there isn’t.

Take two tablets and call me in the morning (that’s Rembrandt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Robert Franck

    You might want to be careful identifying the numbers of the Ten Commandments, especially in a public forum, since there are several different numbering traditions used throughout history.

  • Jerry

    On the right, CBN News White House Correspondent David Brody sees Obama’s “bearing false witness” comment as a takedown of evangelicals.

    Define “evangelical” give 3 examples (as they say). Also why would it be a takedown of liberal evangelicals who support the President’s plan? Sounds like an axe being ground here.

    The lies themselves are fully documented at places like factcheck.org. For example: http://factcheck.org/2009/08/seven-falsehoods-about-health-care/ and http://factcheck.org/2009/08/more-senior-scare/ etc.

    Lying about candidates in political campaigns is a well known technique. How it’s being applied here with some historical comments is discussed here: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/08/asymmetrical-policy-warfare-and.html It’s the throw as much mud against the wall and see what sticks philosophy that coats the thrower in mud as well as the one the mud is thrown against.

    But this post really does raise an issue needing to be aired. Someone who is against the draft law on principle and states that objection honestly is being moral and upholding the ideals of democracy. Society and its institutions and the resulting laws are strengthened when there’s honest debate with all sides in an issue participating. Society is weakened when opponents use immoral tactics to “lay up their treasures” on Earth rather than in other places.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Funny– Yes there is a lot of strong spinning going on out there—But the only person who I have noticed as blatantly “bearing false witness to the media (and most of them swallowing it whole) has been the President.
    Even AARP said that he was wrong (lieing?) about AARP endorsing the president’s health program.
    Also right in the story here Obama is quoted as saying:
    “I believe noone in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance.”
    Another “false witness”???:: Noone is denied health CARE. Unless my memory is wrong, there was a federal law passed a few years ago saying that emergency rooms had to treat all who came there.
    And the media is analyzing and jumping on this health reform issue –supposedly from every angle. Hah? Almost nothing is being said in Congress or in the media about lawsuit reform. This could tremendously bring down costs by, for example, adopting the rule many European countries (a favorite source for liberal Dem thinking these days) follow–You bring a lawsuit and lose you pay all the fees– And no contingency fee bull by lawyers to get you to sue allowed.
    Just look at the media. Try to find anything on tort reform. Talk about a group in society having a stranglehold on all of us. The party in power right now is the lawyer’s party.

  • Dave

    An interesting snapshot of the state of the debate but I don’t see what it’s doing on GR.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans


    President Obama, the “religious left” and his opponents in conservative Christian circles are using, both sincerely and with deliberation, religious language, imagery, culture war issues and even Old Testament insults to appeal to the public in the debate over health care reform.

    Of course it belongs on GetReligion. :-)

  • Stephen A.

    1. “Bearing false witness” is a reference to the Biblical verse cited in the post.

    2. Reporters noting an appeal to the “religious Left” and a slam against “evangelicals” raise important issues of how these terms are defined (or mis-defined) by the mainstream media.

    3. Coverage of “Faith for Health” and other religious groups for and against the plan is being examined.

    Does that help explain why this is here on GR?

  • Jerry

    President Obama, the “religious left” and his opponents in conservative Christian circles are using,

    Of course, that is better said as “the religious left” and the “religious right”. Although really I don’t think simplistic left/right applies here considering the Catholic church has values on both sides. It’s perfectly consistent to be against abortion and for health care reform from the same basic set of values and morals.

  • Dave

    Stephen and Elizabeth, I’m aware of these religious references, thanks. I just don’t see this as an example of the press not getting religion.

    They didn’t explain the references fully? If a quote uses a reference to a meteoric career or something exploding on the scene like a supernova, and the press fails to explain the reference in detail, do we say it doesn’t get astronomy? (In fact, it doesn’t, but those would not be good examples.)

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    JERRY — I agree with the second part of your paragraph. I didn’t explain who the religious left is because I wonder if it isn’t partly a marriage of convenience. Note the presence of historic black churches not likely to support gay marriage, for instance. But while I know journalists have to use categories, increasingly I think these left and right ones aren’t telling nearly the whole story.

    DAVE — Yes, I think some references need to be explained — “bearing false witness” is rather strong language. And if Obama is trying to build a new faith-based coalition, well, perhaps that needs some explanation. The NYT doesn’t seem to think its important, but CNN and MSNBC go into more detail to explain what’s going on.

    Does that mean the NYT reporter’s don’t “get religion?” I’ll cede you this much — it could be they didn’t think the religious angle of this particular story was that important. Or perhaps they didn’t have time and space to explore what Obama hopes this coalition will do for health care — but think about how much time and space has been spent (well or not so well) on the political heft of the “religious right”. Doesn’t the “religious left” deserve analysis, too?

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

      DALEA — Please redo your comment without the ‘l” word, and I’ll be happy to let it through. However, to say something that someone else says is a lie is calling them a liar and I don’t want us to go there.

      ALSO, please try to deal with the journalism. This is NOT the place to talk about health care reform.

  • dalea


    If you could email me my post, I will redo it.

    I did report on teevee stories that cover ER treatment. Which tend to undercut the ER is always there meme. These stories are surprisingly common in SoCal.

  • Jerry

    EE, you could call the right a marriage of convenience as well. Theodore Olson’s and Dick Cheney’s support for gay marriage is a classic example. It’s the mirror image of those on the left who are in favor of classical liberal economic issues while being conservative on personal issues. That’s why I was deliberately referring to the two groups in exactly the same way.

    There’s a very small quiz http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz-faq.html that I think is very instructive. It shows in very few questions how one thinks about economic issues might not be related to personal issues.

  • dalea

    Deacon Bresnahan says:

    Noone is denied health CARE. Unless my memory is wrong, there was a federal law passed a few years ago saying that emergency rooms had to treat all who came there.

    The above statement is untrue. The teevee stations here in LA have covered a number of instances where someone went to one and was not treated because their illness could not be treated by emergency medicine. Among the conditions ER’s can not treat are: dental, diabetes, Parkinsons, MS, problem pregnancies, TB, macular degeneration, physical therapy and mental health. The list goes on. They interviewed one man who could not get consistent care for his diabetes. And a woman with a problem pregnancy who went to the ER, was told there was nothing they could do, she went home and miscarried. There has been lots of local coverage on the limitations and enormous expense of ER treatment.

    Almost nothing is being said in Congress or in the media about lawsuit reform. This could tremendously bring down costs …



    Medical malpractice premiums are less than one-half of one percent of the country’s overall health care costs; medical malpractice claims are a mere one-fifth of one percent of health care costs. In over 30 years, premiums and claims have never been greater than 1% of our nation’s health care costs.

    There is no way to ‘tremendously bring down costs’ since it is such a small part of health care. It may loom large in some individual physicians operation, but overall it is insignifigant. News coverage of the topic always seems to focus on one particulary lurid case, and then expand that verdict to the entire system. I have never seen a statistical presentation on this subject in the press. Just the woman who got burned with coffee and sued.

  • Dave

    Doesn’t the “religious left” deserve analysis, too?

    It certainly would, if there were such a thing. There are liberal churches, but there is no “religious left” as a religio-political entity as there is the “religious right.” Would that there were, but… Something of the sort may arise from this, but right now it’s just a story about a President lining up church support for one bill. I say this despite the presence of my own outfit, the Unitarian Universalist Association — which has long favored health care reform — among the supporters.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, I sometimes think those on the Left doth protest too much about labels. I can’t *IMAGINE* why (sarcasm).

    God love them (and I’m sure SHE does) the UUA is about the most Religious AND Political Left “outfit” one can possibly imagine, towing the Political Left line 100% and taking active approaches in Left political causes. Much like, of course, some denominations and indie churches on the Right do, frequently.

    It can definitely be dangerous labeling non-political groups with political labels, but if a reporter can close their eyes and can’t tell whether he or she is in church or at a Partisan gathering, labels are entirely appropriate, along with the questions (including IRS questions) that naturally proceed from it.

    And back to the topic (re: post #8) the overtly religious overtones of Obama’s rhetoric and the frequent (mis)understanding of it by the press – or their obliviousness to it – is relevant here on GR. Whenever GW Bush used a religious term, the MSM blew a gasket, as did the Left, and both falsely presented it as evidence of a “theocracy” and an unhealthy infatuation with religion. We heard this same accusation a few post back from Dawkins in the BBC’s docudrama on religion.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I told you a long time ago I was sorry you’d had a bad experience with a Unitarian Universalist congregation. You evident bile against the UUA gets in the way of anything substantive you had to say in this post.

    If the MSM would pay consistent attention to the “religious left” I would welcome it, but only if it bore some relationship to the reality it was reporting. As far as blowing a gasket over a threat of theocracy from the religious left, Obama doesn’t pass the sniff test for that, while Bush did so in spades, and the press reacts accordingly.

  • Stephen A.

    Not bile, friend, but facts. (As I said before, I lean Left theologically.) I just spent one minute on the http://www.uua.org Website. The news page is all politics, politics, politics (and environmental activism.)

    In a few denominations, religion and politics flow so freely amongst one another that they’re impossible to separate. This isn’t a slam on the Left. Churches on the Right are equally fully engaged in politics.

    Obama’s gotten a complete pass for saying theo-political things that a Republican politician would be crucified for.

  • Dave

    Stephen, if you’d spend some time with the spiritual resources on the UUA site, you’d have to report a different picture. Your attitude shows through your search methods. I will admit that the UUA website is miserably organized, but it does have an internal search function.

    If you want to deny bile, you have to show, not tell.

  • Stephen A.

    Exposing a political bias isn’t “bile” nor is it “hate” for that matter, it’s fact, and obviously doesn’t deny that there is a spiritual element in these denominations.

    Political bias and an extreme amount of political activism exist in politically conservative fundamentalist churches and also in politically left leaning ones, like UUA, and (to varying degrees) in American Quakers and Mennonites. It’s entirely legitimate to point this out, and shouldn’t be met with denials or outrage.

    It’s amazing that religious and political liberals often believe that they aren’t really “political” at all – it’s just the OTHER side failing to be “bi-partisan” or “non-political.” Their views are “normative,” they say. That, too, is bias when its reported as normal, while the other side is portrayed as aberrant. We see this quite a bit here.

  • Dave

    Of course the UUA is political. It’s a religion that puts a lot of emphasis on this world rather than the next one, and holds itself to standards that politics usually does not meet and therefore is in need of addressing. In addition, the environment is a spiritual topic with a lot of UUs, so what may look like pure green politics is in fact an exercise in religion. Nobody’s denying this.

    As to bile, compare the phrasing of your post #16 to your #19.

  • blestou brian

    Medical malpractice premiums and claims are not the only costs that the medical malpractice industry introduce to the health care system.

    Such “factual” claims do not consider the loss of physicians who would work with the under-served, but cannot afford the malpractice insurance. They do not include the costs of “defensive medicine” (ordering all possible tests to be able to later prove in court that your care was “comprehensive”). They do not include the hospital bureaucracies that spring up to proactively defend against questionable lawsuits. I could go on (I’ve worked in hospital administration and my wife is a physician), but EE said not to debate Health Care here.

    Just goes to underline her basic point – some care needs to be shown in identifying the “false witnesses” and much more explanation and unpacking of what the President of the United States(!) is accusing when he uses such language of those who disagree with his policies/solutions.

  • Dave

    brian, if there are no “death panels” in any version of the health care plan, and people persist in claiming that there are, then “false witness” is not too strong a term to use to describe them, especially if their actions are coordinated from members of the US Senate who have gotten campaign contributions from insurance companies, to town hall meetings where these folks are disruptive and prevent any discussion, to websites cloaking such disruption in the iconography of the American Revolution.

    The President of the United States has many roles, one of which is the leading politician of his party. Bush embraced that role with gusto. Obama, schooled in the ways of Chicago, is good at it, which can be viewed positively in that it’s part of his task.

    The press is cognizant of these things, and should be judged in terms of what kind of a job it’s doing in covering one of the biggest domestic-policy political struggles in some time. Identifying the commandment “false witness” references must be seen in perspective as a minor part of that job.

  • blestou brian

    Dave, a version of a health care plan provides a financial incentive for doctors to discuss the benefits of ending life rather than continuing care, and if the content of those conversations is systematized by a government oversight committee/counsel/”czar”, then an accusation of a “death panel” is a legitimate interpretation of the proposed laws as written.

    The decision to characterize those concerned about such an interpretation as “liars” is a political spin and opinion and ought to be treated by a fair-minded press as such. The decision to invoke the intentionally religious language of the “false witness” in a religious-based context with a religious group is to accuse political detractors of insincere religious hypocrisy and imply that they are under condemnation by their own professed religious systems.

    This arguably rises above mild political grandstanding to the level of some kind of religious class warfare – which, in this case, is being led by our chief political leader. I judge the press poorly for the job it is doing covering one of the most religiously motivated presidents we’ve seen.

  • Dave

    The plan authorizes discussions with the patient as to what they want done at the end of their life. This is Living Will stuff, not “death panel” stuff. This kind of discussion happens all the time at retirement homes that are not trying to pile on the procedures for profit.

    The only spin here is in the assumptions you and others are making as to the content of that discussion. You may be able to scare some of the public with that kind of talk but you can’t scare me.

  • blestou

    Dave, I think the implementation of the proposed laws will be bad and possibly produce evil violations of human rights. You apparently have a different view. Neither one of us has to be a “false witness” for that to happen.

    I am not trying to scare you. I just want reporters to do more actual reporting.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Dave doesn’t frighten easy.

  • Dave

    blestou, I think a great evil can arise when town-meeting hooligans and elected legislators hold hands under the table. This evil has not fully arrived because the hooligans have not degenerated to outright violence, particulary against minorities. Thus I have not applied the label “fascism” yet, and thus do I avoid false witness. But the possibility, Elizabeth, is something that does frighten me.

  • blestou brian

    Wow Dave, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had that level of phobia. You must live in constant fear of the DNC and their activist special-interest protest group buddies. I’d maybe talk to a professional, I don’t think the liberals are going to stop anytime soon…

  • Dave

    brian, I’m aware that a lot of conservatives are having problems dealing with a liberal who plays hard ball. Some of them very loudly. To this I attribute the emerging stuff that concerns me.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, now who’s tone is bile-filled? Yikes.

    While the “Czar” concept needs a lot of scrutiny, the entire “death panel” stuff is over-hyped, since insurance companies and Medicare already ration care and make decisions about ending life. (This recently occurred with a 73-year-old family member. Family was strongly urged to “let her go” by hospital staff. No death panel required.)

    It would be a far better tactic to stick to facts, like how inefficiently and badly the national government runs many large programs already.

  • Dave

    …Or how inefficiently and badly the private health system, especially insurance, runs its operations.

  • Stephen A.

    True, Dave. An honest observer (and there are few) would admit flaws with both a public-run system and a totally private insurance-dominated one.