Politicians Lie

Refreshingly, someone told me the other day that they did not care whether I was Republican or Democrat or Independent. I told them that I was simply disgusted, but I don’t think that is an organized party.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that what I want in a political candidate of whatever level or stripe is someone who

1. speaks what he believes,
2. believes what I believe, and
3. tells the truth.

I might settle for anyone who simply could be counted on to tell the truth. Those are rare.

When I saw a bumper sticker on the truck of a sadly bitter driver (his whole tailgate was covered with similar sentiments) that said “Obama lied – deal with it”, my first flush of frustration at such polarizing sentiments was then matched with sadness. There is truth to the joke that you can tell when a politician is lying because his lips are moving. I don’t want this to be the case. I want there to be heroes, and I want my heroes to tell the truth.

The idea that politicians lie is such a part of our popular psyche that it becomes easy money for cartoonists and comedians.

Lawyers Liars

I suppose that Abraham Lincoln adopted the name ‘Honest Abe’ to differentiate himself from the political pack. I wonder if he was successful. George Washington confessed his wrong in The Incident of the Cherry Tree, but even that may have been a story made up to overcome the aged presumption that politicians, of which he was one, lie.

I want my heroes to be men of character who tell the truth, and there seems to be something about the political domain that dashes such idealism to the ground.

One of the striking things about Erik Larson’s superb book Dead Wake about the sinking of the British cruise liner Lusitania is the bulk of intelligence that warned of a disaster and the inaction of the British government to intervene in any way. In the end, the blame fell on the Lusitania’s captain William Turner, a blame he bore heavily but unjustly.

The government’s official line in its later investigations was that the ship was hit by two torpedoes and not one. That thoroughly untrue claim was designed to imply the inevitability of the disaster and to divert attention from the absence of British preventative measures.

Winston Churchill, by all measures a political hero, was at the time eager to get United States involvement in WWI, and so he turned a blind eye to the fact that the Lusitania was sailing into a trap. He would forever claim, against the contrary evidence, that the attack was unexpected and the government was unaware. Both were fictions. Larson comments:

“The final humiliation for Turner came later, with publication of Winston Churchill’s book, in which Churchill persisted in blaming Turner for the disaster and, despite possessing clear knowledge to the contrary, reasserted that the ship had been hit by two torpedoes.” (page 347)

Lies are hard to prove, and I generally want to give people, even political people, the benefit of the doubt. But when politicians’ lips move, history suggests they are at best, ‘redistributing the facts’.

Unsupported Assumptions

A pastor queried for a series being run on the website of The Gospel Coalition made this observation to support his advice to young pastors:

Much evangelical preaching tends to be either therapeutic or moralistic, regardless of theological persuasion.

That may or may not be true, of course, but there is no way of disputing it. The man making the claim preaches most Sundays, so he can’t have much personal experience by which to make such a judgment. I can’t imagine how he has researched this claim, nor does he cite the research of others. How can he make the claim? Is it because we grant such leeway unthinkingly to prominent pastors?

I’m not sure why without support we are supposed to accept such claims. Maybe no one does. Or maybe they do. I can’t claim to know one way or another.

Mainly Maintaining a Main Message

I heard this morning on ‘Christian’ radio a couple of all too common assertions. One placed Barak Obama in a category with Nebuchdnezer, Nero, and Hitler. I did not like this when George Bush’s opponents did the same thing, but at least they did not try to claim Biblical support for such stupidity. The other, less obvious but quite common, was a preacher telling his people that the job of his congregation was to discover God’s plan for their lives and to do it. Well, whatever the plan is, the doing is no doubt hard enough without God having to go and hide it on us.

These I toss into the pile of the dozens and dozens of false inferences from the Bible that I can never directly address. It may be a mistake, but I decided some time ago that I cannot answer every false Christian claim in my preaching, so I won’t try. I will write and speak and preach the truth as I understand it, arising form the best practices of interpretation, and let it stand.

This may be a mistake. I am making the assumption that the truth expressed through a demonstrated proper method of handling the Scriptures will strengthen people against falsehood. I am also assuming that a ministry of positive affirmation is a healthier diet for God’s people than a ministry of negative confrontation.

The hard thing is, of course, that should I change my methodology, there are just too many targets out there to chase. I think I’ll stay my course.

Lies, Damned Epistemological Crisis, and Statistics

I began this post on January 28, 2011. It joined my queue of other begun and never completed posts which is at this point quite lengthy. I penned the title in a fit of inspiration which may have been more fit than inspiration, but there it is, and I’m not going to change it. It is taken, many will note, from the quote often attributed to Mark Twain but which, it seems, really originated from the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. He is reported to have remarked that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. I’m not sure what role statistics played as a shaper of human opinion and decision making in the 19th century, but he could not have imagined how influential his third category of lies would become in our own. And since this subject has been bouncing around my head for years, this post will be, apologetically, abnormally long.

What spawned the post was originally this article in the Atlantic Monthly with the curiously familiar title “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science”. The article is a fascinating profile of a Greek medical researcher whose labor is aimed at debunking the claims of other medical researchers. He is not bitter nor one motivated by some high level rejection. Rather, his concern for the work of medicine drives him to hold researchers to a high standard of accuracy.

That he does NOT find that high level of accuracy in medical research disturbed me greatly. Researchers, like many of us, are measured by their results. Funding flows to promise. There exists an immense pressure upon researchers to demonstrate positive results in order to keep their positions and their funding. Such pressure can skew findings, can tilt the table so that we find what we are looking for. Hence, my epistemological crisis: whom do I believe? The one who says that eating eggs is bad for me or the one who says that it has no discernible effect in shortening my life? Do I believe the research that says at my age I should get a PSA test, or the one that says that this test has led to much unnecessary treatment?

So goes medicine, and so, sadly, goes religion. Churches have drunk deeply of the statistical Kool-aid in recent years. Recently, I’ve been approached by several people with stats in hand proving that the church is failing young people who are, supposedly, abandoning the church in droves. Some statistics become so dispersed that they attain something of an unquestionable canonical status. Is it not absolutely true that there is no discernible difference in the divorce rates between secular and Christian people? Common thinking, fed by certain popularized studies, says so. But is it true? No.

Years ago, wanting to not be left at the station as a pastor, I began to pay attention to the epicenter of contemporary evangelical statistical research: The Barna Group headed by George Barna. Barna’s name in evangelical culture is synonymous with polling data and his surveys are quoted widely with great authority. “Barna says…” is a powerful rhetorical weapon.

As I received my periodic reports from The Barna Group, I began to notice the disturbing trend that every report ended with something like this, “You can read more about this important study in George Barna’s new book….” Everything led to a book. (He has 28 of them on sale on his web site.)

And what sells books? Controversy and panic. Nearly everything he published had the air of alarm about it. The church was failing here; young people were being lost there; beliefs were eroding, people departing. I grow tired of the doomsayers.

I sense great similarities between the alarmists among us and the medical researchers desperate attempt to achieve publishable results.

Planned Parenthood needs to elevate the pro-life threat into a frightening frenzy to generate its support (I know – I was once on their mailing list, though I don’t know how). The same approach is adopted by Evangelical alarmist groups – be it Focus on the Family or the American Family Association or any number of other groups dependent upon fundraising. The greater the alarm, the greater the threat, the better the flow of money. And that disturbs me. So, I shut down and mistrust all alarmist rhetoric.

But that flows from my bias. I could never back up my resistance to Barna and other alarmists. Recently, though, some well placed Christian scholars have publicly taken issue with Barna and his methodology and results. Reflecting on one study in 2010, Calvin College philosophy professor Jamie Smith was quoted by Justin Taylor with this criticism of Barna:

This is not social scientific data that would ever pass muster in the scholarly field of sociology of religion (as represented, for instance, by work done in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Indeed, I find it hard not to find this almost laughable in its methodological naivete and anecdotal nature.

Recently Taylor pointed out another public rebuff of Barna by Baylor University sociologists Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson in the Wall Street Journal.

As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.

Stark loves the role of myth buster, and one could write this off as a bitter feud among those who get attention and those who don’t. But my experience tells me that it is quite easy to make statistics do what we want them to do. And the result is that the church becomes an alarmist place, with God’s people, serving the one in whom is all authority in heaven and earth, in a body against which the gates of hell will not prevail, cowering in fear and apprehension.

I agree with Stark and Johnson: Beware the bad news bearers. Check and double check all statistical claims. Use a source other than one whose work is used to sell books. And let us become more known for the good news we proclaim than the bad news we fear.

Messianism and Realistic Thinking

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post which referenced the scandal regarding Greg Mortenson, I found wisdom in this, again from Megan McArdle. We look for Messiahs who can do anything and fix everything. But mere men are mortal and the problems of the world resist instant, overnight, single-handed solutions. And yet we look for such.

If we refuse to fund anything but the most ambitious products, we are vulnerable to con men, or starry-eyed optimists who don’t understand what they’re up against. We can’t transform the lives of the global poor overnight. We can make them better. But only if we are clear-eyed about the projects that we undertake.

There is great work being done in the world. But it will tend to be small scale, limited in scope, and incapable of grand claims of success. But there the kingdom of God is being built.

For sober thinking on development, I encourage people to go here.

Three Cups of Tea with Charley in Search of Integrity

Years ago I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America and remember enjoying it greatly. Never did I imagine that it was fiction posing as travel essay. Recently, journalist Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s travels. Though he did not set out to undermine Steinbeck’s credibility, he did not get far before he realized that the pieces of the story simply did not fit in the way that they were told. Steigerwald concludes, “Virtually nothing he wrote in ‘Charley’ about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.”

Bummer. I like memoirs. I am a fan of thoughtful people reflecting on their lives lived. And I like to believe that when someone records a thrilling story that it is, in fact, true.

A few weeks ago my brother gave me a book that had become a favorite of his, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time, one which tells the tale of an adventurer whose travels bring him into a village in Pakistan. The kindness of the villagers leaves such an impression upon our hero, that he returns to America, founds a massive charity, and begins building schools all over that troubled region. CBS’s 60 Minutes then has to come along and play spoiler to the whole by exposing his inspirational tale as riddled with untruth.

“Upon close examination, some of the most touching and harrowing tales in Mortenson’s books appear to have been either greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth.”

That’s pretty damning, if you ask me. Worse than Charley, Mortenson seems to be profiting from the charity that his books have championed.

Huck Finn told us that Mr. Mark Twain told the truth, mainly. But even Twain did not then ask that his book be shelved in the ‘non-fiction’ stacks.

Journalist Megan McCardle had some interesting reflections on the Mortenson revelation:

This sort of thing just mystifies me. I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose. Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce–aren’t people afraid of getting caught? In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?…

Perhaps Mortenson’s exaggerations started by just playing with the edges of this uncertainty–sexing up his quotes and the characters he met. Then as nothing happened, he got bolder. Especially since he was probably rewarded for his creativity–lightly fictionalized characters are usually livelier and more compelling than actual people, who tend not to speak in well crafted dialogue, or make exactly the perfect point upon which to pivot our story.

Her analysis, while perhaps accurate for the way sin (and I do consider passing off untruth as truth morally aberrant) ordinarily enters into our experience, fails to take into consideration the impact of arrogance upon the human heart. At some point, some of us just believe we are too important to be bothered by ordinary restrictions.

I just wish those who come to that place would not expect me to read their books.

Truth

This morning, it seems, has been all about truth. If you want, grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and ponder the realities and ironies of the modern world.

First, Don Sweeting, the President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, is attending the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, and posted this report as a urgent plea for Christians to retain a commitment to truth. He quotes speaker Os Guiness:

“We as followers of Christ must be guardians of truth. Only a high view of truth undergirds our defense of the faith that all truth is God’s truth.”

Then, by contrast, ironically, in an article about atheists holding a similarly themed meeting, one by which they hoped to plot a path for their own ‘reaching the nations’, one fiery participant claimed this:

“The word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars.’”

Glad to see that we ‘agree’ on something.

And then, speaking of agreement, I was saddened to read an assessment by David Brooks that I’ve long suspected, that politics does something to a person, is probably true. Truth becomes less precious as it gets bent to serve another end.

Nobody who walks into the valley of our political system emerges unscathed. Today’s political environment encourages narcissism and inflames insecurity. Pols must continually brag about themselves, and Kirk has succumbed. Even with his record, he’s embellished his achievements. He claimed a military award went to him when it really went to the unit he led. He claimed his plane was shot at over Iraq when it wasn’t. He claimed he was a teacher when he was an assistant at the school.

And finally, two articles I have not yet read, but only glanced at, related to the above:

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

Truth Lies Here

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Perhaps as we ask that question more insistently, we will come to the Answer.

Enjoy your coffee.