“I wish Sean Spicer had been my dad,” said the Duke student.
“Why on earth would you wish for that?” I asked, in shock.
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful,” he explained, “when you got stopped by the cops in high school for speeding, or when you got caught with a bag of pot, to have a dad who was willing to let you lie and then to stand up and lie for you?”
He was kidding, of course. But the lack of truthiness in Trumpdom is no laughing matter. I know someone who refused to vote for Donald Trump because of his violation of the Ninth Commandment. I had to think a moment before I could remember that commandment’s prohibition: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
This Christian felt that Trump’s self-evident lie that he had personally seen New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11 was an egregious instance of false witness that indicated deep moral flaws. I told my friend that while I tended to be more concerned with Trump’s violation of the Seventh Commandment, false witness is bad too.
It’s one thing to disagree over the facts; it’s quite another knowingly to lie. We do our sisters and brothers no favor when we aid and abet their deceit. Let Shawn Spicer and Kellyanne Conway be a warning to us all.
Christians are those who not only believe that Jesus Christ is the truth about God. We also believe that he makes possible a people who are able to tell the truth even in a culture of lies. The church, which is clearly not the most powerful institution in our society, has one great, gracious gift to offer – the One who is not only the way and the life, but also the truth (John 14:6).
Not to be nostalgic, but when I entered the ministry in South Carolina in the early Seventies we young pastors were convinced that the most challenging area of ministry, and the most loving thing we could do for the salvation of a segregated South, was to tell the truth. We had to ask God for the means to overcome the powerful force of lies and to speak up and to speak out in the name of Jesus.
As bishop, I became concerned that many pastors in my church had allowed pastoral care, the extending of mercy to people in sickness or difficulty, to take over all of their ministry. Truth-telling seemed to have taken a backseat, in many pastors’ ministries, to caregiving, hand holding, and hospital visiting. The church as a community of Christ’s truth had become the church as a sometimes helpful member of the secular health care delivery team.
Truth is on my mind, not (as it should be) because of Jesus Christ, but because of the sorry spectacle of Robert Bentley. Bentley has at last left office, after wasting Alabama’s time and money by lying about his affair with a coworker. When I, and the bishops of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches in Alabama sued Governor Bentley over his draconian anti-immigration law, I found him to be a weak, deceitful, little man who had duped many Republicans into thinking he was a fundamentalist Christian standard-bearer. However, even I never thought that he would stoop to such a low level of sordidness. The affair and attempted cover up is bad, even for the rather low standards of Alabama politics. Other Alabama Republicans have been implicated in Bentley’s scandal and some may go to jail for this, along with Bentley himself. (Be worried that Jeff Sessions was produced by and lived quite happily in the same moral swamp that gave us Bentley.)
Here’s my main point: Bentley’s lies would have never been exposed (certainly not by his fellow Republicans) without the persistent, courageous, hard work of a dedicated Christian reporter—John Archibald. I got to know John, columnist for the Birmingham News, when I was in Alabama. We met for coffee from time to time and I always learned more from him than he learned from me. Alabama Methodists were quite proud of John because John’s father was a retired United Methodist minister in Alabama. John Sr. was respected by all as a pastor who stood up for the truth and witnessed to the truth in a time when Alabama punished gospel truth tellers. John Jr. told me that a chief thing he learned from his dad was that ultimately, truth triumphs. While his father told the truth from the pulpit, John searched for the truth and then told the truth in the news.
When Rachel Maddow went through the facts about the sex and ethics scandal that forced Governor Bentley out of office, and the further political fallout that could affect others like appointed Senator Luther Strange, she interviewed and then gave a strong, admiring shout out to John Archibald’s reporting. She noted that Alabama Republicans would never have allowed Bentley to be exposed without Archibald’s heroic work.
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump impugns the integrity of the press. The values of a free, persistent, truthful press make the press the enemy of all deceivers. Trump has made us more dependent that ever on the press to tell us the truth in spite of the threats of politicians.
Join me in heaping honor upon John Archibald and the church and parents who produced him. May John’s work encourage us all to more courageous truth telling. If John can do it from the pages of the Birmingham News, we too can do it from the pulpit!