In a season of campaign schwag, a baseball cap caught my eye. Beneath an American flag were the words “Make Lying Wrong Again.”
It framed the stakes of the election in a simple way. Does lying matter anymore?
Honesty has always been considered a keystone of character. Even children know lying is wrong. This is clearly communicated in our faith traditions as well. For example, the Bible warns against some form of lying at least 116 times. It’s right there in the 10 commandments – “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” and echoed from the Old Testament (“A righteous man hateth lying…” Proverbs 13:5) to the New Testament (“Do not lie to one another…’ Colossians 3:9-10).
Whether lying matters is, of course, not an idle question. A core component of President Donald Trump’s coalition is evangelical Christians – people who have righteously railed against a lack of character and ethics in the White House in the past and advocated for a return to family values. This presumably does not include lying. But the fact is that conservative Christian voters supported Donald Trump in 2016 at a higher rate than they did George W. Bush, a born-again Christian whose faith shaped his “compassionate conservative” politics.
Few would use the same phrase to describe Trump, who commands evangelical respect, even though the respect is not necessarily returned in private. He does not seem preoccupied with questions of Christian ethics in action and there is no evidence that he feels a particular fidelity to the truth.
Let me say it more plainly: it is not biased to describe Trump as a liar. It is a matter of objective and demonstrable fact. The Washington Post has catalogued more than 22,000 false or misleading claims over the course of his time in office – and those are just the ones that he’s uttered in public. And he has lied as much as 50 times a day during the final stretch of this campaign. “The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me,” Trump’s former chief of staff, Marine Gen. John Kelly has told friends, “The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it’s more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.”
Historians generally agree that character is the most important quality for a president. There’s a reason that our greatest president’s nickname is Honest Abe. But in Donald Trump’s Washington, lying has become normalized. Perhaps the most recent and stark sign of it was in the abandonment of alleged principle to push forward the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
More than 40 Republican Senators declared that they would not advance a Supreme Court nomination in an election year to justify the unprecedented blocking of President Barack Obama’s 2016 pick Merrick Garland. The most notorious was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said: “I want you to use my words against me: If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, ‘Let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’ And you could use my words against me and you’d be absolutely right.” When that exact circumstance occurred, Graham shrugged it off. You can call it situational ethics. You can call it the triumph of partisan politics over principle. You can also call it shameless lying.
The irony is that perhaps the most religious and socially conservative Supreme Court nominee in decades will have been put in place by an abandonment of the basic ethical standard known as the Golden Rule, articulated in the Bible as “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
For many conservative Christians, the ends may justify the means in this case. Other partisans will reach for whataboutism and point to lies by previous Democratic presidents. But in terms of the sheer volume of lies, we’ve never seen anything like President Trump. For voters motivated by questions of faith and ethics, how should they view the President’s lying and the effect it seems to be having on our politics?
I asked two priests what role they thought it should play in election calculations.
“How should Christians account for a pattern of lying in casting their vote?” reflected the Reverend Don Waring of Grace Church in New York. “Quite simply, they should not vote for anyone who deliberately deceives. Lying is a mortal sin, and the kingdom of God is not advanced through unrighteous means. It never does anyone any good to have public officials in office who play fast and loose with the truth. One lie leads to another, and it always catches up to them. Then we are all embroiled in distracting public scandals that taint the whole political process.”
In his view, normalizing lies threatens to drag our whole democracy down.
But the Reverend Al Zadig, of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina, no doubt reflects the views of other conservative Christians by weighing lying against other sins.
“Certainly, there is a presidential character that requires truth telling,” Zadig says. “Lying is a sin. There is no hierarchy of sin in the eyes of God although the consequences may be different in society. This creates a real struggle for many clergy and people of faith with the sin of murder from the perspective of abortion. …Again, sin is non-hierarchical, but the consequences between lying and murder are so vastly different. As a priest, it provides an honest and powerful dilemma. But the common nature of what we call the seven deadly sins is that they kill the heart and the soul of a person.”
Good people can disagree about abortion – especially if they see a difference between personal decisions and political prohibitions. But a look back at the seven deadly sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride – is a reminder of just how many Donald Trump embraces as a matter of his core brand. He has long been an avatar for greed and conspicuous consumption (chased by platters full of fast food), with tabloid sexcapades he wore both as a badge of honor and a sign of virility. Pride defines him – and many of his lies are about bolstering his reputation. His ego also reflects his insecurity and envy while wrath defines his political style. Regardless, all of these are overlooked or unremarked upon by Trump partisans.
Instead, the President’s favorite weapon—projection — is deployed at political opponents, regardless of truth.
Even Joe Biden’s political opponents in the Senate acknowledge that he is a decent and honest man even if they fundamentally disagree with him on policy. But to muddy the moral waters, the Trump campaign has tried to spread totally baseless accusations – some truly sordid and others simply designed to deflect, including a series of Facebook ads that claim “Joe Biden is a liar and needs to be held accountable.” The goal is to try and convince folks that both candidates are liars, and so they can take that issue off the table. In perfect circularity, the ads are themselves lies.
All of this is to say that if religion and virtue matter when casting your vote, then lying should matter as well. Because honesty matters. Character matters. On the flip side, campaigns that focus on fear or greed run counter to basic tenets of faith. If we overlook these bedrock virtues to focus instead on one or two policy positions – no matter how deeply held – we lose sight of the most fundamental teachings of faith and run the risk of reaping the whirlwind as a society.