Politics and the Darkness of Lying

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 109-111. Used by permission.


Lying is wrong because it violates our covenant with God, a covenant that sustains us in our human frailty.

When George Bush announced his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, he told the American people two things that almost no one believed: that race was not a factor in the selection, and that Thomas was the best-qualified person for the position.

There are certain situations in which we are permitted to fudge the truth. We may say that the gift of a necktie is just what we needed even though we have many more just like it at home. But when a president argues for a Supreme Court nominee it is expected that there will be a congruence between what he knows to be true and what he says is true.

The president’s initial announcement set the standard for the hearings that followed, during which, under oath, Thomas told the Judiciary Committee that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade. No one believes that, including the 52 senators who voted to confirm Thomas. As Garry Wills noted in his syndicated column, "Now we have a perjurer on the bench." Wills went on to quote Robert Bork as saying there are only two people in America who have not talked aboiut Roe v. Wade—David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Souter at least managed to evade the committee’s questions on the subject, whereas Thomas said flat out that he had never discussed the case.

Evasions and lies have become de rigueur for Supreme Court nominees. Bork did not lie or evade in his response to questions, and he was rejected for being outside the "mainstream" of American opinion—which means he was outside the preference range of the advocacyr groups who opposed him. Now that this principle has been established, liberal appointees can expect the same treatment from conservative groups.

When the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed Robert Gates as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, it did so despite Gates’s association with former CIA chief William Casey, som1eone who was not always truthful in speaking to his aides or to the American people. Gates insisted he knew nothing of Casey’s involvement in the Iran-contra affair, though officials below him in the hierarchy suggested otherwise. Questions about Gates’s stewardship and his relationship to Casey were not considered sufficient to prevent confirmation. His experience in running the agency was more important for the senators than the "lesser issue" of truth telling.

Lying has its advantages. I was involved some years ago in a lawsuit filed after our family dog bit someone. An investigator came by our house some weeks after the transgression and casually asked if this was the first time Rebel had bitten anyone. I was unaware that the law automatically condemns a dog for a "second bite," taking the view that once is a mistake but twice is a pattern. Three young boys were looking up at their father as he fielded the question. All of us knew that Rebel had, indeed, been guilty of an earlier transgression. We loved the dog and knew he was high-spirited, but not mean. Both bites, in our opinion, were innocent, not vicious acts. Since truth telling is important in our family—and since I didn’t know about the telling is important in our family—and since I didn’t know about the two-bite rule—I mentioned the earlier incident. The investigator was delighted with the information. Our insurance company eventually settled out of court and we had to have Rebel put to death, an act that neither I nor the boys have ever forgotten or forgiven.

Lying sometimes may help us accomplish an immediate goal (like saving Rebel). But each lie undermines the network of trust on which relationships rely. Lying is wrong, furthermore, because it violates our covenant with God, a covenant that sustains us in our human frailty. Without a moral principle backing our daily intercourse, we are left to function with the utilitarian assumption that if it works, do it; if it feels good, try it. The bottom line, maximum return and cost efficiency become the trinity for those who assume there is no general moral principle by which we are meant to live.

Rollo May, writing in The Cry for Myth, notes that the 20th century was once heralded as the age in which education would enable society to embrace a "religion cleansed of all superstition," by which he meant any belief that went beyond rationality. But, May argues, our age has not been blessed by the anticipated benefits of rationalism. "As a people we are more confused, lacking in moral ideals, dreading the future, uncertain what to do to change things or how to rescue our own inner life."

One of the more memorable quotes from the Watergate era is from the wife of a White House staffer who opened her front door and found herself confronted by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Knowing their mission, she paused for a moment and then stated quietly, "This is an honest house." The answers her husband later proved indicated that their home was indeed one of the few connected to the scandal that could claim that distinction.

Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount is a word for a nation that rewards deception and honors lying: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness."