Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Sunday Sermon

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:54 AM |  

Regardless of what Sen. Dean Johnson says in is apology on the Senate floor on Monday, the words “embellishment” and “ sanding off the truth” will be flung with reckless abandon around the state capitol and in media commentaries until they, too, like the word they euphemize, lose their meaning.

The Pioneer Press today editorializes on lying.

Unfortunately, in today's political climate, the Johnson dustup is just a symptom of a larger, systemic problem.

Don't misunderstand. We're not letting Johnson off with an "everybody does it" explanation. What he did — embellish or even fabricate a story that raised questions about the integrity of the state's highest court — was particularly troubling. But it may well be more common than any of us would like to admit. . . .

Indeed, in an end-justifies-the-means political climate, hyperbole is the currency of the day. This manifests itself most publicly in floor debate, op-ed pieces and political advertising, perhaps the greatest threat to what many people would agree is "the truth." The bigger problem is that which we don't see. How many small meetings have there been between a politician and a constituency in which the truth was sacrificed to curry political favor?
I agree with where the Pioneer Press editorial is coming from, but let’s also confess that conflicting points of view do not always make a lie. Honest disagreement is not just a possibility, it is an inevitable reality as long as people accept the obligation to think for themselves. The operative word, however, is "honest."

Our focus ought not to be on “lying,” but on “truth,” for therein lies the essential problem. It is a two-fold problem. First, is the philosophical notion that there is no objective truth -- no right and wrong and all morality is relative. Second is the pragmatic notion that truth doesn't matter; everybody lies.

What makes each of those arguments problematic is the unwillingness of individuals to do the tough thinking. As finite minds in an infinite universe, we may never know what is ultimately true in the moral realm, or if one prefers, the mind of God, but that doesn’t excuse us from the obligation of trying -- continuously trying.

In my Presbyterian catechism, I learned that “the most important think in life is to know God and obey his will.” I believe that. But I also know that the charge is impossible in this life, and to think that I have ever arrived at that point is human arrogance. As God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkened counsel by words without knowledge?” The finite mind can never comprehend the incomprehensible.

Faith is not unexamined belief and blind acceptance of some rigid dogma (or uncritical rejection of the same). Faith is ultimate belief in a higher, universal truth. Objective “Truth” does exist and our obligation is to continuously challenge our earthly and temporal “knowledge” in search of what lies beyond them. Morality is not relative, expressions of morality can be.

Before getting lost in the wilderness of philosophical wanderings, let’s move to the pragmatic problem of lying -- “everybody does it.” I think that’s true, and that is the root of the problem. People lie out of either fear or arrogance, and those are the same reasons people condone lying.

On the one hand, to call someone out for lying puts a target on one’s back. In the ethics committee hearing, Sen. Johnson’s attorney repeated the Biblical story of Jesus and the prostitute -- “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” She asked the committee, who among them had never misspoken in a public meeting? Who could stand up to the scrutiny of having every word they speak recorded?

That is intimidating. I am intimidated. I harbor no illusions that I have never written anything that wasn’t one hundred percent factual, never recalled a phrase or thought that might not be construed as plagiarism, am bullet-proof to charges of hypocrisy, have never appeared to have flip-flopped on an issue. And my insistence on some accountability in the Johnson matter might come back to haunt me.

But what I tell myself, and what I say to others, is the greatest lie is knowing the truth and (out of fear) not speaking up. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” speaks to moral condemnation; it is not a command to lie by silence. One must rationally judge the conduct of others or there can never be trust and, in the political realm, government based on any principle other than the raw power of physical enforcement. Of, by and for the people becomes poetry, not politics.

People also lie out of arrogance, and they abide lying for the same reason.

I have received a number of emails expressing the idea that lying for a good reason is sometimes justified, but none so concise as this --

Dean Johnson may well have lied. I say so what. I have a feeling we could find plenty of lies from any and all politicians if we did a little research. If Dean Johnson did lie, "fall on his sword", he picked a very worthy cause.
I can only describe that end-justifies-the-means attitude as arrogance. Who does not believe his cause is just? If lying is acceptable to pursue a “just“ cause, then there simply is no role for truth in politics. If there is no role for truth, there is no role for trust, no role for law, no hope of the liberty provided by an ordered society.

But what of those that say we should simply move on? What of those acknowledging that either Dean Johnson is or somemembers of the Supreme Court are lying, but conceding that some issues are simply too difficult to resolve? It is enough to determine that a lie was told, elicit an apology and quickly move on? Is it too much work to find the truth?

Is that attitude not also arrogance? Is that not a statement that "my" political concerns take precedent over truth?

In the grand scheme of things is another light rail line or a same-sex marriage amendment more important than faith and trust in the highest court in the state? Is practicing politics more important than protecting its integrity? Is our legal system a pantomime of integrity acting out but not speaking the truth?

Resolution by attrition of will is all-too-common a course and proves the tool of tyrants. Lie long enough, and people will tire of pursuing the truth.

Perhaps this is why we are quick to honor as heroes those that speak truth to power, but are slow to emulate them. But honor without emulation is shallow, hollow and, indeed, faint praise, deserving no more gratitude than ought be given to he that apologizes only after being hounded into it.

If he is true to form, Dean Johnson will say in his apology on Monday that he hopes he and the Senate will have learned a lesson from his experience. I hope in that, at least, he is telling the unembellished truth.