When I lived in Appalachia, an elementary school teacher asked me to come read to her second grade class. In preparation for my first visit she told me she wanted me to tell the students what I did for a living, which sounded easy enough. But then I thought, “I’m a minister. What do I do for a living, and how do I communicate that to second graders?”
After a great deal of vocational agonizing, I landed on what I thought (and still think) best describes my occupation: I get paid to tell the truth.
Someone will surely object that the truths I’ve landed on and proceeded to tell aren’t necessarily truth at all, but merely my interpretation of the truth. In fact, many would argue that much of what I say has very little relationship to the truth.
I don’t disagree with the criticism out of hand; much of what flies under the banner of “truth” is contested. It might do better to say, “I get paid to try to tell the truth.” Because while the question of whether what I say will ultimately prove correct is debatable, my intention to say it as truthfully as I can is not. A commitment to seeking the truth is indispensable. To do my job, the people I serve have to trust that I’m trying to be honest.
I thought about that second grade class and my halting attempts to describe my profession as I listened to Sen. Ted Cruz last Tuesday, tap dancing his way around his 2012 opposition to the emergency aid package after Hurricane Sandy. He claimed it was “filled with pork.” The Washington Post gave that bit of fiction three Pinocchios, saying that “it is wildly incorrect to claim that the bill was ‘filled with unrelated pork.’”
It’s one thing to make such a claim about pork-filled emergency aid packages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (which he did). It’s an entirely different thing, however, to continue to say it after five years, when the facts about how the aid has been spent are a matter of public record.
I thought, “He knows he’s not telling the truth. How can he continue to say things that are demonstrably false? How can he do a job predicated on the trust of his constituents, when he’s willing to speak falsehoods?” Then it struck me, “He probably won’t even pay a price for lying.
I’ll cop to just how remarkable my incredulity seems at this point in our nation’s history. I shouldn’t be surprised by the sad state of our political life. After all, we elected a president who, when a candidate, famously said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
But it’s not just that the president could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. The bigger problem is that the president could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and deny there’s a Fifth Avenue (or a New York City, for that matter) . . . and not lose any voters.
As a minister, that’s where I have a problem — not just the casual disregard for the truth, but the cynical belief that seeking the truth isn’t even necessary. What counts for truth is contestable, but to act as if the truth takes a back seat to political advantage threatens the bonds that make society possible.
Perhaps more troubling, however, is how religion figures into this deadly social cocktail of deceit and apathy, because the most doggedly tenacious of the president’s voting base includes white evangelicals—that is, people who are supposed to care about the truth.
Why is does that trouble me? Apart from the fact that I’m tired of having to explain to everybody else that Jesus has no stake in much of what white evangelicalism cares most publicly about, it troubles me because white evangelicals are the people I grew up with, the people who told me being a minister requires telling the truth.
Unfortunately, I learned about truthfulness from people who now, it turns out, seem to think truth is optional, and that its intentional absence shouldn’t be held against politicians who’ll otherwise speak in censorious tones about abortion or gay marriage. If evangelicals are willing to settle for a society where the truth is something we no longer value in our political leaders, that’s a problem for all of us.
If we let this stand, what will we tell the second graders?