A crucial part of my conservative evangelical upbringing was learning about the difference between “absolute truth” and “relativism.” We were taught that conservative evangelicals believed in truth, while liberals believed that each person gets to make up their own “truth.” So I thought that conservatism was defined by loyalty to the truth. To be a conservative meant to believe and tell the truth even when the whole world around you is telling lies.
What eroded my conservative evangelicalism more than anything else over the past two decades was to see my fellow defenders of absolute truth turn into peddlers of fake news and post-truth ideologues. I think it started in the nineties with their vehement opposition to Bill Clinton. I remember in particular the Clinton Chronicles, a 1994 fake documentary funded by Jerry Falwell that was filled with outrageous, unsubstantiated charges against the Clintons. In the nineties, it became okay to spread lies about a morally sleazy politician, simply because his immorality justified it. There was no accountability or remorse when conspiracy theories were proven false; new ones were cooked up immediately to take their place. And there was always the assumption that even if 95% of the conspiracy theories are proven wrong, 5% of them must be right because there are so many.
The right-wing outrage industry got its start as a reaction to Clinton, and it’s become as lucrative and morally devastating as the porn industry. The false witness epidemic in our culture today is no less a specimen of porneia than our culture’s sexual immorality. And where are the preachers speaking out against false witness the way they do against porn? There is no one who embodies the permissibility of lying in our culture like Donald Trump, who won the presidency because of his support from 81% of evangelicals. Sure, it’s true that many evangelicals made the same kind of lesser-of-two-evils choice that people did who voted for Hillary Clinton. But the way that Trump beat out so many morally superior candidates in the Republican primary field precisely because he played dirty exemplifies the moral crisis that has resulted from decades of normalizing false witness in conservative media.
I’m not sure whether conservative evangelical youth groups today talk about absolute truth the way they did in the early nineties. It seems like the cognitive dissonance would be unbearable. So how did the defenders of absolute truth find it so easy to become the very relativists they defined themselves against? I’m not saying that all or even most conservatives have made this move, but somebody has been buying Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter’s books or else they wouldn’t be millionaires. Not every plant in the garden is toxic, but the ground sure is caked in rotten fruit.
I think it’s a question of how we define absolute truth. Being committed to absolute truth can mean two very different things. On the one hand, absolute truth can signify that the universe has a single reality despite the fact that we perceive it from billions of vantage points. In this sense, absolute truth means the universe around me is not a dream that’s all in my head. The objective facts that surround me in the world matter. I don’t get to make up my own facts. There are universal laws and principles that exist independent of my subjective, culturally conditioned position.
When I was indoctrinated with absolute truth as a young evangelical, this first definition was how I was taught to understand the concept. However, I came to learn that, for evangelicals, absolute truth was not as much about the existence of universal truth as it was about obedience to an infallible authority. For conservative evangelicals, the authority to obey is of course the Bible, or more truthfully, their particular doctrinal superstructure within which they encase their interpretation of the biblical text. When you’ve made the decision to define truth as obedience to doctrine, then you’re not actually committed to the notion of a single, universal reality, because reality is whatever makes your doctrine work.
I’ve seen conservative evangelical leaders like Tim Keller and Michael Horton admit this much when they discuss their need for the Garden of Eden story to be an actual historical event. The reason they need for Adam and Eve to be historical figures and not allegorical representations of humanity is because otherwise their Calvinist system for understanding original sin doesn’t work. The slippery slope to a post-truth reality starts with defining truth as whatever makes your doctrine work.
The reason why conservative evangelicals have to believe that climate change is a myth is not because they’re being cynically dishonest out of ideological or fiscal investment in fossil fuels. It’s because if humans can destroy the world with our pollution, that poses a tremendous threat to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. And after a century and a half of battling evolution, conservative evangelicals have been trained to dismiss hostile science as a secular humanist ideological agenda. Because truth is whatever makes the doctrine work.But the biggest problem is not with biblical inerrancy’s clash with science. More problematic is how conservative evangelicals have been socialized to respect authority itself as infallible. Sure everyone says that the Bible is the authority, but the real authority figure is the interpreter, whether it’s the small group leader or the megachurch pastor or the movement leader. What happens when this obedience to infallible authority and doctrine is transferred from the Bible to a partisan political platform? What happens when people apply their training in authoritarian church environments to their allegiance for a populist demagogue?
Fascism is what happens when a large enough mob of people are so radically committed to the infallibility of their leader and his cause that believing the leader’s lies becomes a moral imperative, when truth is whatever makes the leader right. I don’t think fascism will take over our country because there are too many factions. We have too many secular humanists and people of color, but if we were a homogeneous nation of conservative white evangelicals, it would be very easy to create fascism by converting biblical infallibility into the infallibility of the leader.
The biggest mistake conservative evangelicals make is to extol obedience for its own sake. Obedience is the lifeblood of fascism. It is the primary way that sin reproduces, because obeying the crowd is a lot easier than critically thinking for yourself. Most of the time when obedience happens in our world, people are not obeying God; they are obeying an idol whether it’s a political hero or the forces of the market or a sinful lifestyle goal. To actually obey God in a world filled with liars, narcissists, and conmen both inside and outside of the church requires constant vigilant disobedience. That’s what cruciform resistance looks like. Obedience in and of itself is not a virtue.
1 Peter 1:22 says, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Obedience to the truth is what we should all be striving for. But you cannot be obedient to the truth unless you start with the humility to recognize that obedience to the truth is a freaking infinite mystery. It’s not simply a matter of willfully resisting clear and obvious lies; actually discerning the truth is the hard part. The Bible is a huge resource for our journey into God’s mystery, but we’re setting it up for failure if we expect it to be a self-explanatory, all-encompassing answer book for every question of biology, cosmology, sociology, etc. Obedience to the truth is way more involved than simply scanning our Bibles for a chapter verse proof-text to apply to every life scenario that confronts us. While Christians should certainly use scripture as a primary means of interpreting our lives, that doesn’t excuse us from handling the facts of our world with cautious, sober integrity.
Being obedient to the truth means courageously facing the inconvenient realities that completely screw up your doctrine and force you back to square one. It means being willing to change if the truth compels it but also willing to hold on for dear life to the truth even if all of your friends hate you for doing so. It means trying to understand people who radically disagree with you, but also resisting the temptation to disown all your beliefs for the sake of agreeability. It’s the perfect balance of being able to say both “I might be wrong” and “I think this is right.” It means being willing to contradict the crowd but also willing to recognize that you can’t figure it all out on your own.
My greatest hope for the next four years is that Donald Trump’s presidency will create such an ideological Chernobyl for Republicans that the end result will be a complete reinvention of conservatism so that it becomes synonymous with integrity again. Alternatively, if Donald Trump himself has a Damascus Road encounter and becomes an honest man, I’ll take that too.
I believe in absolute truth. That’s why I refuse to accept easy explanations or mass-produced bumper-sticker doctrines. It’s why I’m very distrustful of people who valorize blind obedience. It’s why I work out my salvation with fear and trembling like the Bible tells me to do (Philippians 2:12).
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