Truth Telling, the Moral High Ground, and a Modest Proposal

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

I remember a commercial from several years ago where a sexily clad Cher commented: “Let’s face it, if developing a sexy body were easy, everybody would have one.” The implication is, of course, everybody wants one, but few are willing to pay the price. I wonder if the “moral high ground” isn’t a lot like that: everybody wants to be on it, but few are willing to pay the price to get there. If Diogenes wandered with his lamp through the corridors of power in America today, how many would he find willing not only to talk the moral high ground talk, but also willing to walk the moral high ground walk?

Many have argued that morality begins with truth telling, and it is this virtue that seems in such short supply. This is, of course, a non-partisan issue. The verbal hair-splitting, the attempts to mislead while “technically” telling the truth are rhetorical methods deployed by progressive and conservative alike and both sides deserve the derision their moral failures bring. However, from my perspective as a Christian theologian, those who openly claim to be followers of Christ are particularly worthy of critique when they claim the moral high ground and yet fall so easily into the obfuscation game. In Matthew 5:33ff, Jesus instructed his followers not to take oaths but simply to let their “yes be yes and their no by no.” He knew that once we begin to think of truthfulness at two levels (you must swear to tell the truth for us to be sure you are really telling the truth), ruin is not far off. The trust necessary to sustain our lives together must be built on trustworthiness, not finger-crossing, clever rhetoric that hides reality.

The Christians who opposed Bill Clinton rightly objected when he used clever rhetoric to obfuscate; those who supported him were too quick to argue that what he said was “technically true.” We now have an administration that has a high level of support from self-identified Christians. Yet, now that the shoe is on the other foot, the tongue is in the other cheek, so to speak. Examples are plentiful, but let’s just stay with the headlines. There is little doubt that Karl Rove revealed classified information in an attempt to discredit the Wilson report on Iraq’s alleged efforts to secure nuclear materials. Scott McLellan, who was quite vocal in denials of wrong-doing earlier, is now stuck in a permanent tap dance around the truth. The biggest knee slapper of all the RNC talking points had to be the claim that Karl was simply trying to prevent the spread of false information (For more, go here). And, does anyone really think the “I didn’t reveal her name” defense gets Karl off the hook? The President has said he will fire anyone involved in this leak, but seems to have changed his mind. All this is problem enough, but in my mind it is seriously amplified by the fact that this administration and its supporters have claimed a virtual corner on the “God market.” We are an embarrassment to the Christian faith when we remain quiet in the face of such contradiction.

Let me make a proposal: while there are serious issues that divide Christians and while those issues deserve serious and substantial engagement, let us agree that we will know longer tolerate those who play fast and loose with the truth. Can we join hands across the political divide and commit that the next time we hear the likes of “I didn’t inhale” or “I didn’t reveal her name,” we will rise together and promise not to rest until the truth is spoken? We need not abandon our policy commitments, but let us agree we will abandon those who will not take truth telling with complete seriousness. If we could agree to this seemingly small step, we would make an incalculable contribution to the elevation of our political discourse. For debate on other theo-political issues, join us here.