A few nights ago I happened to come across two old Facebook discussions, one about sentimentality and the other about journalism. Both produced many comments of the “Why are you so critical, this was a nice story, and we need nice stories” and “The stories do good, don’t question them, do you hate God and puppies?” sort. Even the “It doesn’t have to be true because it tells us a deeper truth” sort.
Almost everyone who said this was a Christian and most were Catholics. Almost all of them would in other contexts denounce moral relativism. Most of them would cheer Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies, because the lies he means are liberal and Communist lies.
And apparently none of them accepted the Eighth Commandment as binding when a lie would (they think) better serve their cause.
Even I was surprised. I’ve spent much of my life studying political arguments, in which even normally honest people tend to bend the facts to serve their conclusions. Political arguments begin with the belief that you’re right, and that being right matters, and that you must convince others you’re right to keep bad things from happening. The urgency seems to excuse cutting corners.
In the discussion of journalism, I’d posted my advice to a young journalist who was writing on the pro-life movement hero Abby Johnson. A former Planned Parenthood worker, Johnson came (she claimed) to see the value of unborn life partly from witnessing an abortion in which the baby fought back. Some people didn’t believe her.
The journalist had asked if she needed to consider the skeptics. Yes, I said. I explained the dynamics of celebrity, which tempt some people to tell and other people to believe untruths. And, holy cow, her pro-life fans erupted. I hated babies. I supported abortion. I wasn’t pro-life. Abby was a hero. Why would I even question her story?
I had no opinion on the matter, beyond expanding to celebrities Orwell’s belief that saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent. That’s journalism 101. The more hype, the more skepticism. The more people want to believe, the harder the journalist must question. But whether Johnson was a hero or a poser, or a mixture, I had no idea, and didn’t particularly care.
Almost no one argued that her story was true. They insisted pro-lifers must accept it. It does too much good to question. A few even said outright that a story doesn’t have to be true if it tells us a deeper truth. It was too good not to be true.
Much of this was pro-life weirdness. It’s a subculture that loves its celebrities, and a movement many members of which have sunk into ideology chasing political success. Much of it was the normal way movements work. Everyone loves the story of an agent for the other side who suddenly sees the light and comes over to theirs. Pro-choicers love the stories of pro-life women who found themselves pregnant and suddenly understood the need for “reproductive freedom.”
Of course my pro-life readers wanted to believe the Abby Johnson story. It’s a great story if true. But believing a story’s true because you want it to be true only hurts your movement. It robs the movement of the fruit of working through the hard questions. Finding answers to the hard questions makes a movement stronger, and at the points it must be strong.
But worse is the failed witness to the world, especially from Christian pro-lifers.
A secular person reading the two strings would have been justified in asking, “So you don’t care if a story is true as long as it advances your cause?” We’ve just celebrated Easter. No resurrected Jesus, no point to the whole enterprise. The secular person reading the comments would be justified in asking a second question. “So you don’t believe in the Resurrection because you believe Jesus rose from the dead, but because saying he did makes you feel good?”
Every one of them would scramble to say they believe Jesus rose from the tomb, that Christianity depends upon history, that without the resurrection we’d be of all men most miserable, etc. They’d happily criticize liberal Christians who didn’t believe it. They might admit to bending the truth about some things, but the Resurrection, that’s fundamental.
But it’s the telling of the truth that’s fundamental. The habit of only claiming to be true what you know to be true is the virtue the world sees, and the virtue that leads it to take the Christian seriously. His facing the truth even when it makes his work harder the world takes as a sign of a truth strong enough to face the most difficult facts.
When Christians who’ve made a political claim’s value to them more important than its truth declare “Jesus Christ is risen today,” their secular neighbors would be justified in having his doubts. They established their limited concern for truth in the smaller matters. He who is not faithful in little will not be faithful in much.
Why would their neighbors trust them to tell the exact truth about something that’s even more important to them? When they want it to be true, and benefit from insisting it’s true, and therefore have every reason to lie?
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was Speaking of Heretics, Like Menno Simmons, and his previous article for the homepage was The Guardian Columnist Without Religion Knows What He’s Missing. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
The picture of a young boy being lectured by a master at the Lambeth Ragged School for Boys appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1846. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
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