Will the Real Truth-Tellers Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Truth-Tellers Please Stand Up? September 5, 2012

Of the many differences between this year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions, there’s one that should be of particular importance to religious leaders: truth-telling.

The GOP event was, sadly, lie after lie. On the first day, speakers repeatedly assailed President Obama for claiming that small business owners “didn’t build” their companies—which he never said.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich took the podium to insist that Obama gutted the work requirements from the 1996 welfare reform bill. False.

Mitt Romney used his nomination speech to say for the umpteenth time that Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” to other countries. Also false.

The most egregious speech was that of Paul Ryan, who blamed Obama for causing the U.S. credit downgrade, amassing as much debt as “almost all of the other presidents combined,” slashing Medicare in ways the Republicans would stop, and allowing the shuttering of a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. All false.

Such falsehoods aren’t innocuous or trivial; they constitute the core of the GOP case against Obama. Without them, little would be left.

So far, the Democrats’ convention is going quite differently, in that the speakers aren’t offering a stream of blatant falsehoods. Sure, the event has opened with the usual set of bromides that we’ve come to expect from political speeches: The American dream should be for everyone; Democratic positions are not about left vs. right; Michelle Obama’s most important job is Mom-in-Chief. But there hasn’t been much in the way of lying. The Democrats are making their case, and Americans can do with it what they will.

So what’s the role of the faithful—especially clergy—in the face of this truth gap? Shouldn’t they be calling it out? Shouldn’t they mention that some people in our nation’s political debate are repeatedly and shamelessly bearing false witness against others?

This is not a question of theology.  Conservative religionists can still say government isn’t the proper vehicle for charity while liberal ones say social injustice requires us to band together as citizens to promote the common good. Lying to the public, which keeps Americans from making informed political choices, should be off limits in any theological approach. Need I point out the gazillions of Bible passages on this topic?

Religious leaders could take a cue from prophets like Isaiah, who slammed his people for having “made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.” The prophets’ tradition of speaking truth to power—especially the power structures of our own societies—is not somehow less relevant today than it was in the times of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and all the rest. Indeed, in a society that has democratic features like ours does, we have more of a chance to make a positive difference than in the old days. So when a powerful faction in our country tells lie after lie to con Americans into casting votes they presumably would not otherwise cast, clergy have a prime opportunity to fight back as participants in the prophetic tradition.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying churches should take sides with one party or another in electoral battles. It’s illegal, and rightly so. But religious leaders should be willing as individuals to demand an honest debate. Members of the clergy have tremendous credibility that they could wield to hold officials accountable to the truth while empowering citizens to make sound political choices. But so far I’m not hearing a peep out of those with big platforms. Religious leaders are remaining silent while Americans are effectively being denied the right to a clear understanding of candidates’ values, policies, and track records.

Why the silence? We can only presume that (a) their fear of causing a backlash is trumping the imperative to speak out for truth, (b) their partisan loyalties are blinding them to the fact that lies are lies, or (c) their partisan loyalties make them believe that a little lying is a negligible price to pay for getting the right candidate into office. These are understandable reactions. Very human. But faith demands more. It demands fealty to truth.

Are religious leaders willing to do what faith demands? We’ll soon find out.

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