I recently participated in a politically diverse group discussion about truth and lies—particularly the phrase, “The Big Lie.” Someone suggested that the term be applied to President Obama’s false promise in 2009 that under Obamacare you could choose your own doctor. Most others though understood its current usage to refer to the lie that Trump rather than Biden won the last presidential election.
But then someone mentioned that Adolf Hitler actually coined the term in his book, Mein Kampf. Hitler described the strategy of spreading a lie so “colossal” that people assumed it must be true because no one “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
Hitler then used this strategy to falsely accuse the Jews of betraying Germany in the First World War. His words were crucial in setting the stage for the Holocaust two decades later, since by that point many Germans had come to believe that if it wasn’t for the Jewish people, Germany would have won the Great War.
This sobering historical precedent led to a discussion about the strikingly similar situation in our country today: Trump accusing Democrats of stealing the election and then lying that he won, despite the constitutionally certified results to the contrary.
Political deceit feeds on itself, as lies tend to do, leading House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to say that no one was “questioning the legitimacy” of the 2020 election despite the fact that the former president, conservative media, and dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures are doing exactly that on a daily basis.
Alongside the Big Lie associated with the election, many Trump supporters repeatedly state that there was no mob attack on the Capitol on January 6. Rather, according to Republican Representative Andrew Clyde, it “was just a normal tourist visit”—even though video shows Clyde helping to barricade the House floor from the rioters on that day.
Lying in politics of course is not new. It is well-developed blood-sport practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. But why is lying so acceptable now with seemingly no qualm of conscience not only by politicians but by so many others, including many Christians? Have we as a country become so immune to political leaders lying that we think it is okay for us to do the same, flaunting facts so wildly that we come to believe lies as truth for the sake of keeping or gaining power? Have we become like the ancient Israelites whom Jeremiah described as those who have “taught their tongues to lie” (see Jeremiah 9:5)? Is lying no longer a sin?
Let me the suggest the following reasons for our prevailing “culture of deceit.”
Personal and Political Insecurity
The noted historian Will Durant said, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.” This need for self-adulation is a universal form of idolatry that is particularly obvious and odious in political leaders who depend on it for maintaining their political power.
It is this self-preservation instinct that leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republican senators to publicly oppose anything that President Biden or Democrats might propose, no matter the issue—such as having an independent bipartisan commission investigate the January 6 insurrection.
Democrats of course are not innocent in their craving for the limelight or in criticizing their Republican opponents. Neither are we. I actually had the above Will Durant quote taped to my desk for many years. It was there to remind me of my selfish propensity to be very critical of others so that my ideas and subsequently my stature would be held in greater esteem. I struggled to learn the biblical truth that to think of others better than myself is the pathway to a much deeper and satisfying personal security rooted in loving God and neighbor.
Postmodern Influences and Distortions
A second reason for the propensity to believe lies today is the broader cultural environment that influences how, why, and what we think. For many decades, postmodernism has been a popular philosophy that describes much of how our culture approaches matters of truth. Postmodernity elevates one’s own individual and subjective claims to truth over the belief in any metanarrative or overarching objective truth.
Postmodernism asks: Why believe in any external truth if it contradicts your own predisposed opinion or your emotional inclinations? Did Biden win the election or does that depend on if you wanted him to win? Do masks protect people from COVID or does that depend on what political party you prefer?
It is so tempting to believe an explanation that feels right based on one’s predisposition that truth falls by the wayside. The “alternative facts” that Kellyanne Conway referenced so casually early in Trump’s presidency have come to define our post-truth culture. We have become comfortable accepting the “truth” we want to believe as long as it gives us power.
As Hitler wrote of human malleability: “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously…. Even though the facts which prove [that someone is distorting the truth] may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.”
In other words, objective truth can easily cede its authority through deceitful appeals to our emotional susceptibility.
The First Big Lie
The biggest reason for our inclination to lie, though, has been with us since the Garden of Eden. The first lie in the Bible was when the serpent questioned the man and woman: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1) Since God’s command was only with respect to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent lied about God’s restrictiveness and thereby his goodness.
The second lie compounded the distortion of God’s character when the woman falsely told the man that they could not even touch the fruit, when God had only commanded them not to eat it. The final lie in this dialog was the serpent saying “you will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). And yet death did become the result of their sin.
This account not only illustrates our human propensity to distort the generous nature of God who wants us to enjoy his creation, but it also describes the fundamental character of Satan. Jesus described Satan as the “father of lies,” saying that when Satan lies, “he speaks his native language” (John 8:44).
By contrast, Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and described himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). When we lie or repeat a lie even though we know it’s not true, we are not only giving into sin, we are siding with the enemy in a deep spiritual battle. What and who we choose to believe reflects not only our political loyalties but also our struggle with spiritual discernment.
How Should We Respond?
So how do we respond to our country’s political proclivities—and the deceptions of our own hearts—that are destroying meaningful civil discourse and undermining our democracy? Can we live together with any sense of shared purpose and trust, or will we embrace the lies of politicians for the sake of political power and a false sense of security in ourselves?
On a practical level, we can refer to neutral fact-checkers and get our news from a variety of sources with differing and well-formed opinions. Writers and interviewers who treat politicians with professional respect are more likely to present us with facts and honest news.
In addition, we can also ignore commentators and news anchors who yell frequently and consistently ridicule political opponents with unproven accusations. Discerning the integrity and character of our news sources is almost as important as discerning the character of our politicians.
But perhaps the most significant individual initiative we can take is to recognize with King David that the Lord “desires truth in our inward being” and then to respond with David, “create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (See Psalm 51:6, 10.) When we are renewed internally, we can speak the truth in genuine love with our friends, neighbors, and family members, and by doing so we also speak into our culture.
But what if others don’t want to listen because they are so convinced of their own position? What about those who believe conspiracy theories because of Christian leaders and elected leaders who tell them to? What about those who don’t believe respected news sources but only believe their own narrow band of information? What if they honestly don’t know or accept that they are believing lies and especially the “Big Lie”? Do we verbally and aggressively fight them for what we think is right or do we resign ourselves to a passive avoidance or is there some other perspective?
In his excellent book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro quotes Paul J. Griffiths’s implications of Blaise Pascal’s sage advice on engaging in public controversies. Griffiths says we “should engage in controversy with a level of energy and commitment appropriate to the importance of the topic and to the degree of certitude [we] have about the truth of [our] preferred position on that topic.” And then in Pascal’s direct words, “It is not our task to secure the triumph of truth, but merely to fight on its behalf.” Pascal wisely and humbly acknowledges that the times are not exclusively in our hands.
But in his divine providence, God has entrusted to us the call to bear witness to the truth. To do so though with authenticity, we must genuinely long for truth in a way that goes beyond political identities or proving ourselves right. Pascal prophetically wrote, “Truth is so obscure in this time, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
So, in facing our moral crisis of not always knowing either what or who to believe, we can tutor our affections to more fully embrace the great commandments and their implications of loving God and neighbor. We then may have a humbler discernment of what is really true.
The Big Lie is not just about who won the election. It is also the false belief that we can’t trust God’s goodness and sovereign love and instead we worship ourselves, our opinions, our politicians, and our political parties—and that’s the truth.