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Living the Truth in Politics: Part 3

29 Aug 2018

***This is a three-part series on Living the Truth in Politics. Part 1 sets the stage of how truth is treated in the political realm. Part 2 looks at how the Bible treats truth, especially for the Child of God. Part 3 examines the obvious conflict and attempts to answer a question: how does the Christian engage in politics in a truthful manner? The answer is much more than simply, “tell the truth.”***

The Obvious Conflict

The Bible hails truth as a trait of the divine, and it condemns the lie and connects it to the Devil himself. If we take politics’ proclivity for the lie seriously, we have at least two uncomfortable realities to confront. First, Christians within politics are an awkward fit. Second, the temptation to lie for the sake of political gain is always present and must be resisted.

There is a reason “truth” is typically not found on a list of political virtues (courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice are common). The demands of politics seems to make truth a necessary casualty of the process itself. This puts Christians, in their pursuit of politics, as citizens or leaders, in a vulnerable position. They will be tempted toward the lie, both big and small, or they will be truthtellers, which could render them either politically useless and thus safely ignored, or, if effective, attacked as a pathogen by the system itself.

Revealed truth through religion does not easily mesh into a political system. Truth, no matter how it is derived, discovered, or understood, stands outside persuasion by its very definition. Christian moral claims in particular do not engender discussion. Moral truths, even when not agreed upon, work as standards to judge conduct and express the extent to which it coheres with God’s expectations. While the conflict between Christianity and government in America during the past several decades can be overstated, it exists primarily because our moral truth claims conflict with the ethos of the regime. The demands of chastity stands in judgement of the sexual revolution.

Christian standards on sex are clear and difficult to reconcile with a shifting culture. The Christian sexual ethic is built around monogamy between a male and a female. It condemns, as orthodoxy has been historically understood, sexual practice outside of the marital bond, including pre-marital sex, adultery, and homosexual sex. These moral truths, taught in Scripture, once created the common ground upon which our politics were built, so using these teachings as a foundation for laws against prostitution, sodomy, contraception, and adultery were viewed as a reasonable extension of this ethic into the public square.

The political grounding of truth has shifted within the American system. The role of revealed religion has eroded to the point where beliefs or truth claims based on religion are consigned to the realm of opinion. This destroys the coercive nature of these moral truth claims by sapping them of their validity and authority. If the conflict between believers and the political system stopped there, Christian orthodoxy would be safely ignored and condemned to irrelevance. But when orthodox beliefs are connected to action, which is when they move from the realm of ideas and into the arena of politics, the political system has at times moved to eradicate the activity.

When bakers, florists, fire chiefs, and corporations choose to behave based on their traditional sexual ethic, there have been unfolding consequences. Jack Phillips, based on his Christian understanding of sex and marriage, declined to provide a customized wedding cake for the marriage ceremony of David Mullins and Charlie Craig. The state of Colorado found Phillips in violation of its civil rights laws. Phillips appealed and challenged the constitutionality of the law on religious and speech grounds. The Supreme Court sided with Phillips, though it did not settle the issue fully. Colorado’s laws still stand, though their implementation was determined to be flawed (Keneally 2018). Barronelle Stutzman, a florist in Richland, Washington, denied a wedding arrangement to a gay couple, also due to her religious orthodoxy. Washington has sued Stutzman. Her case is still pending legal review (Timm 2018). Atlanta’s fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, was fired when his published book, which labeled homosexuality as a sexual perversion, came to light. Cochran said, “Everything I wrote in the book is based on scriptures, not my opinions” (Wolfe 2015). Hobby Lobby, the popular craft store, refused to comply with federal regulations that required the company to provide contraceptives, including abortifacients, to employees as part of their health care policy. The Department of Health and Human Services fined the company for its refusal. Hobby Lobby sued on the grounds the law violated its First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court found in favor of Hobby Lobby (De Vogue 2014), but Hobby Lobby is a closely held, family-driven corporation, so other entities may not enjoy the same legal protections.

While the courts, for now, have limited the government’s reach in some ways, the fact that such laws and regulations exist, and have been applied to traditional Christian orthodoxy, suggest how far removed the American political system is from traditional sexual ethics. What Christians see as a set of moral truths are now deemed at best as opinions and at worst as various shades of bigotry. Not only do Christian teachings lack authority, the beliefs themselves erode the “truth” of our common ground that makes politics possible. By labeling religious beliefs as bigoted, they are put outside the boundaries of what is politically actionable. In particular, Christian beliefs about sex confound and antagonize our culture because they purportedly conflict with equality, which remains an unquestioned truth at the foundation of our system.

The lie, though, remains the great temptation of the Christian within politics—either as a voter, advocate, or office-holder. The lie can take many forms, but it stems from a misrepresentation of the truth either by word or deed. Words that are false are easy to spot. Records can be checked and verified next to statements. When Christians lie in this fashion, even in a political context, they not only sin, but they misrepresent the God of truth. They harm their witness by fogging or breaking their mirrored reflections by which others ought to see God when look upon us. We must confront such lies as we would any other sin of a fellow believer. Occurring in the political sphere does not diminish the mendacity of the lie. In fact, the sphere publicizes the lie in contrast to other falsehoods. The evidence suggests that Christians engaged in politics regularly give in to the temptation of lying for political gain. We must do better if we are people of truth.

But falsehoods come in many varieties. Actions inconsistent with the truth diminish the truth and reveal a disconnect. Integrity is the harmony of words and deeds, while discord grows when words and deeds work against each other. At minimum, when people claim one thing as true but do another, this is a misrepresentation of the self. When a Christian does it, this is a misrepresentation of the self as an ambassador of God. The disconnect between words and deeds is just as damaging to the Christian witness as uttered public lies.

The truth of the Christian in politics is more than simply speaking the truth, which is difficult enough. The truth of the Christian in politics, at any level, is the totality of the coherent Christian life on public display. The political truth of the Christian is the sum total of all Christian political obligations put into practice. It is the fundamental connection between what we are called to do—honor, respect, obey, pay taxes to, pray for our leaders, and love our enemies—and actually doing it. In this way, truth is the paramount Christian political virtue, for it reveals the integrity of politics as a form of witness. It does us no good, and provides no glory to God, for us to merely proclaim what we must do without pursuing it also through our deeds. This is the political life as a testimony to the world of God’s grace in us.

Václav Havel was that rarest of modern breeds, the politician that was also a gifted thinker. While he eventually rose to become President of the Czech Republic, he spent his formative years behind the Iron Curtain where his intellectual and artistic opportunities were limited because of his family’s “suspicious” history. He lived through the brutal repression of the Prague Spring and proved himself an enemy of the state by his willingness to speak when given the chance. He was pursued, harassed, and eventually imprisoned. He grew into an important underground intellectual, one who not only grasped totalitarianism, but also developed his own methodology for how to combat it.

In his magisterial essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel reveals himself as a thinker on par with Orwell, Chambers, and Solzyhenitsen. In the work, Havel reasons through the evil of the Communist regime. It is an odd dictatorship, one that is disconnected from the people and governed impersonally and bureaucratically. Communism’s allure was a ready-made ideology that was coherent and complete; it was a “secularized religion” that answered all questions and harbored no reservations. The power of Communism rested on its willingness to subvert the truth with lies that ran in direct opposition to reality. The people were said to have all power, but actually had none. The individual was said to be liberated from need, but was actually oppressed. As bankrupt as it was, it provided a comfort in an intellectual age that had thrown off all other authorities.

“To wandering humankind [Communism] offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority” (Havel 2015, 25).

Those who bought the “big lie” of Communism, and lived according to the dictates of the ideology, became, in essence, the system itself. They were the hands and feet that made this strange brew of totalitarianism possible. Those who lived in the lie perpetuated the system even if that was not their intent. By “going along” and “getting along,” they propped up the regime even against their own friends and family.

Havel had no weapons and no army. Hounded by the government, he reflected on its fear of him, an insignificant man. Havel eventually realized that truth was his most potent weapon against the regime. The truth must be articulated, but it must also be acted upon. Those “living in the truth” must behave in a way that undermines the regime by recovering themselves, their conscience, and their responsibility.

Havel uses a simple grocer as an example. As his produce is delivered, the grocer also receives signs that bear the party’s symbols or slogans like “Workers of the World, Unite!” The grocer is expected to put everything on display and he does so, mostly, because this is how things have been done. Not wishing to stand out or risk suspicions of insufficient loyalty to the state, the grocer usually complies without a second thought. What happens if the grocer decides the signs do not reflect his beliefs and he no longer wishes to advertise freely for the party or its ideals? He begins to live within the truth. He has broken no laws, but he has disrupted the system, even minimally. For that, he will be persecuted in various ways, but his statement resounds.

“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth” (Havel 2015, 39–40).

While the grocer’s stand is important, it merely scratches the surface of what it means to live in the truth. In order to bring about change, living within the truth must be open to the public. It cannot be ghettoized, for living in the truth is outwardly focused and it is most effective when it not only challenges the existence of the lie, but when it points toward a better way of social and communal life. This is the kind of truth that carries the potential for transformation because living in the truth, fully realized, embodies solutions. Living in the truth both highlights the disease and points to the cure.

There can be no meaningful comparison between Havel’s experience in the grip of the Eastern Bloc and an earnest Christian living within a political system that appears stacked against his values. Havel feared for his life, while Christians in America sometimes fear declining influence and irrelevance. Havel feared execution and labor camps, while American Christians, at worst, fear for their livelihoods in some narrow circumstances. But Havel’s admonition to live in the truth so that our lives point toward a better way feels eerily prescient as we confront a post-Christian age.

What is the “big lie” that tempts Christians who wrestle with a different sort of uneasy conscience? These are the believers who inhabit a land they once ruled, but now find themselves in the purple dusk that marks the twilight of their influence. The big lie for them is born of a democratic ethos that empowers individual voters. Their perceived agency—to vote, persuade others, write social media retorts, or to share “good” news items—is directed toward an end they have in mind. Those ends may be to achieve certain policy goals, get particular sorts of judges confirmed to federal courts, or to protect the liberties they perceive as under assault. These all may be noble ends and may even result in a general “good” for the body politic. But are they “good” enough to justify living outside the truth of the Christian’s political calling? Are “good” ends enough to excuse a lie, the disrespect of authority, or the demonization of political rivals? Is our “influence” enough to legitimize what sometimes feels like a glaring lack of integrity?

The regime that surrounds us seems corrupted and foreign. Truth is absent. Power is the pinnacle. Sins are excused. Justice is denied. The conscientious Christian should find herself as an “other” in this political world. If she doesn’t, she is living the lie that politics as it is currently practiced is the way things must be, that there are no alternatives. She is going along and getting along to fulfill her goals, whatever they are. She is propping up the corrupt, deceitful political system that trades in falsehoods and is bent only toward the accrual, expansion, and maintenance of power—regardless of the ends sought.

In Ephesians 4 and 5, the Apostle Paul exhorts believers to seek a new way of living. He calls on us to “put off your old self” (4:22), which is corrupted by sin. He calls on us to “put away falsehood” by speaking “the truth with his neighbor…” (4:25). We are to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…” (4:29). These are all characteristics of walking in the “darkened” “futility” of sinful minds (4:17, 18). This is a life apart from God. Instead, we are to be “imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). Far from treading in the darkness of the lie, we are called to “walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true…” (5:8-9).

We constantly remind ourselves that we are to be “salt” and “light” in a fallen world (Matt. 5:13, 14). These are probably the most popular texts we, as believers, turn to as we discuss cultrual engagement. But we struggle as we put feet to these verses. How does it look to be salt and light? Here Paul tells us WE ARE THE LIGHT as we move within the world itself. How does this work in politics? In this sense, it is quite simple.

We have the truth of God’s commands as they relate to politics. We respect, honor, obey, pray for, and pay taxes to our leaders. We love our enemies. We are people of truth. There is no great mystery, no magical key of influence delivered by an elfen queen, or buried treasure chest of ideas revealed only if the map’s fragments can be pieced together. There is no fog of theory that must be penetrated. We have the blueprint for what it means to live out these truths in the political world. They are simple, but this does not make them easy. By living our truths for the world to see, we point the world to a better form of politics.

Imagine a political environment where honor and respect are cornerstones of public and private political interactions. Imagine a politics where truth is championed. Imagine a politics where we humbly and selflessly seek God’s blessing on our leaders and our land. Imagine a world where we love our political rivals and where our kindness toward them defines us. It sounds like a naïve paradise, a utopian dream shrouded in the clouds of the afterlife, the rejected lyrics of a pop song no one wants to hear.

The beauty of the dream is that we can live it in the here and now, even in the hurly-burly of politics. This is our responsibility as we point the world to a better way while simultaneously pointing it to the Great Redeemer. This is our calling in the field of politics whether we are simple voters or we are advocates, volunteers, analysts, journalists, or office-holders. The calling holds regardless of party attachment and party preferences. We just have to live it out.