Why Lying Has Become Normal and Acceptable
Just this week I necessarily visited two “big box” stores—to buy items I truly needed. (Due to the pandemic I am temporarily avoiding stores as much as possible.) At one big box store I took my item to the cash register and happened to notice that it charged me $10 more than the price clearly displayed for the item on the shelf. I was not surprised. This happens often. A few hours later, the same thing happened at another big box store. Different amount, same difference between the “shelf price” and the price charged.
None of that surprised me. It happens often. What surprised me was the reactions of the “customer service” people when I complained. They treated these discrepancies as normal and took no responsibility for them. “Oh, it happens all the time; why are you upset about it?” That was their attitudes.
Now don’t get me wrong; I was not yelling at them or showing them any anger. But I did complain and tell them both that they need to speak to management about this all-too-common occurrence. I could tell they had no intention of doing that. In fact, I felt treated as a trouble maker just for asking for my money back—after I proved that they overcharged me and I overpaid for the items. In fact, in both cases, they attempted to argue that the “true price” of the items was what the “computer said” rather than what the price tag on the shelf said. (Neither item had a price tag on it.)
What do these two same-day and very common incidents illustrate?
They don’t illustrate the point I want to make here very well. Much better—by way of illustration—would be the numerous advertisements and commercials I am bombarded with every day. Everywhere I go I see signs and hear messages that I can easily detect are deceptive, manipulative, sometimes obviously untrue.
I believe we have approached and even entered a social situation (in America) where lying, defined as intentionally deceiving, even if only by leaving out a very important fact, is so common in government and in business that we are used to it and don’t feel that it is wrong. It is normal. What is normal can’t be wrong. I believe that is the attitude of too many people.
I happen to believe that the people who operate big box stores KNOW that there are often discrepancies between the prices of items on their shelves and the prices the “computers” charge at the “check out” “cash registers.” I believe this has become the accepted new normal for big business—hiding the true cost of advertised or displayed items even if only by neglecting to update the computers and/or shelf prices. I suspect very few people notice the difference and walk away having paid more for their purchase than they thought they would. I think the big box stores owners and managers know this.
This is a small illustration of what I want to say here. My point is that I have come to believe that we are so used to being deceived by powerful people who control our lives that we don’t even expect that it should be or could be otherwise.
As a student of history, including American history, I am all too well aware of how often and how profoundly our government leaders have lied to us. It’s extremely difficult not to be cynical about business and government.
What’s worse, however, is deception practiced by religious leaders—including Christians ones. One of the great defining “moments” (really series of events) in my life was the terrible controversy about open theism that raged among evangelicals in the 1990s and into the first decade of this century. It unveiled to me how willing some evangelical leaders, including theologians, were to manipulate evangelical opinion their way.
Open theism was publicly labeled belief in “an ignorant God” and belief in “a God who gives bad advice.” Certain evangelical theologians invented quotations and attributed them to me and other evangelicals with the clear intention of harming our reputations and careers. Open theists’ writings were taken out of context to make it appear to the unwary that they were process theologians. In at least two cases that I could easily identify here evangelical theologians who blatantly lied about what open theists said.
When I attempted to point these things out to evangelical leaders I was brushed off as expecting too much with regard to rigorous devotion to truth.
I was shocked to discover that even seemingly reputable evangelical Christian theologians, seminary presidents, publishers and speakers would blatantly lie to achieve the desired result which was to turn people in the pulpits and pews against open theism (and by extension Arminianism). They used overtly manipulative and deceptive means to do that.
Lying, deceiving, manipulating facts (taking them out of context to distort their true meanings) has become part of the fabric of American society. I can accept that even as I daily struggle with it. The doctrine of original sin helps me cope with it; it’s a result of human depravity. What I have never been able to come to terms with is the same thing among evangelical Christians. And the open theism controversy is not the only example of it.
I consider it blatant deception if not a form of lying when a church hides its denominational affiliation in order to appeal to the “post-denominational” mindset of potential members. I have made it a practice at least occasionally to look for the denominational affiliation of churches that advertise themselves as “community” churches with no hint anywhere about their denominational affiliations. Almost always I find some denominational affiliation, however informal or unofficial, buried somewhere on their web site. Why is this deceptive? Because in most cases these churches require members or at least leaders (deacons, elders, whatever) to fit into the particularities of the denomination’s distinctive beliefs and practices.
Some years ago I was invited by a very large, very influential, nationally very well-known evangelical church to teach a Wednesday evening series on Christian doctrine. The church is known as one of the first American congregations to publicize and even organize itself (outwardly, at least) using marketing techniques. The church was and is very Baptist; I knew that. But during my series many of the attenders complained bitterly that they did not know it was a Baptist church until they had been attending for a year or two and applied for membership. Only then were they told, individually and somewhat secretly, that they would have to be “re-baptized” by immersion (most of them were Lutherans) in order to join the church. To them that meant rejecting their own baptisms. They felt deceived. By the time they discovered the true identity and beliefs and practices of the church they had already “put down roots” in it and didn’t want to leave.
I believe that IF a church is going to stick to denominational particularities it ought to indicate its denominational affiliation “up front”—on its sign or at least in its worship folder/bulletin. And yet, this practice of hiding denominational affiliation is commonplace and widely accepted and hardly ever called out as a form of deception. It has been accepted as normal even though it is deceptive.
Frankly, as a person who cares about truth and reality, I find living in this world of falsity, of deception, of manipulation of truth and reality, very difficult. I struggle with cynicism and anger a great deal. And I worry about people who have simply come to terms with the situation and take the attitude that “it is what it is.” My solution is to point out deception to advertisers, business people, church leaders, politicians and anyone who will listen.
You can’t just take things as true because they are on a billboard or in the newspaper or spoken from a pulpit. You have to look into things deeply enough to know whether they might be true or not. It’s not easy to tell and that causes many people to stop trying. So they are simply swept along by the tide of untruth that infects our culture, our society and even our churches and religious organizations.
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