No jesting matter

Lack of truth diminishes a leader, erodes trust

Jun 5, 2017 by

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The British philosopher Francis Bacon coined the term “jesting Pilate” to describe the Roman governor’s attitude when he asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Since Pilate didn’t wait for an answer, Bacon concluded he didn’t take the question seriously. But it was no joke.

The presidency of Donald Trump has brought fresh relevance to Pilate’s query. Accusations of “fake news” and assertions of “alternative facts” raise the most basic questions: How can we know the truth? Who can we trust to tell it? Or, as Time magazine’s April 3 cover story asked, “Is truth dead?”

No, but the fact that such a question sounds relevant today indicates the widespread feeling that the Trump administration has pushed American politics into uncharted territory. As the British newspaper The Guardian judiciously put it, the president “doesn’t subscribe to a conventional notion of truth.” Whether inflating the size of the inaugural crowd, claiming millions of people voted illegally or giving contradictory reasons for firing FBI director James Comey, Trump projects ironclad confidence in his own version of reality. Given especially to exaggeration, his assertions range from the verifiably wrong — that he has proposed the biggest tax cut in history — to the strange and unbelievable — that he is the “most presidential” president, except possibly Abraham Lincoln.

The president appears unafraid of being caught in a falsehood. A lack of artifice separates his brand of untruthfulness from that of other politicians who seek to deceive. To lie shrewdly shows, ironically, an understanding that the truth is something to be taken seriously and that the appearance of truth is something to be desired. Trump speaks with shameless indifference to the baldness of his inaccuracies. The absence of guile is itself disturbing.

His religious inclinations may be slight, but there’s an affinity between Trump’s “the-truth-is-what-I-say-it-is” mindset and the self-improvement gospel of Norman Vincent Peale. A minister and motivational speaker who officiated at Trump’s first wedding, Peale believed attitudes were more important than facts. And there was some truth in his message extolling the power of positive thinking: A hopeful view of the future might indeed be the first step toward achieving it. We would stand a chance to reap the benefits of taking more risks if self-doubt didn’t hold us back. But Peale’s advice to envision future success, no matter how badly things are going now, is much different from saying we can make today’s facts match our wishes.

A lack of truth erodes trust. For an elected official, it diminishes the ability to govern. For each of us, it hinders our ability to work with others for the common good. If knowing the truth sets us free, believing delusions ties us up in knots.

What do we need to be set free from in order to know the truth? Our self-righteousness? Our pride and certainty? Even the most confident judge of real facts and fake news can’t claim to be a vessel of pure truth. God’s word is truth (John 17:17), but among humans the whole truth doesn’t come from one source. Assumptions need to be challenged: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are good sources for comparing liberal and conservative arguments. Informed citizens will expect a higher standard of truth than presidential tweets and televised partisans’ rants. We must weigh competing claims, cast for truth with a wide net and demand honesty from our leaders and ourselves.

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