Truth: Does It Matter Any More?

Years ago we were on a family vacation. I was checking into the possibility of taking my family on a boat ride. If I was willing to sit and listen to a sales presentation, we could go on the ride for $15, which I was willing to pay, instead of $60, which I wasn’t willing to pay.

All I had to do was sign something saying I made a certain amount of money each year. When I explained I didn’t make that much money, the sales rep said, “No problem. Just say you do. It’s OK.” He had run into this little snag before, and he was used to people accepting his assurances that lying was perfectly alright.

When I nicely explained it wasn’t alright with me, the congenial atmosphere suddenly changed. I had blown my cover as a normal enlightened liberated human being and showed my true colors as a moral dinosaur, a fossil from some other, more primitive age.

The rep’s associate, formerly bubbling with warmth and friendliness (elicited by potential profit), became indignant at my outlandish suggestion that I should tell the truth. “Look, these people [for whom he worked, who paid his commissions] would rip you off in the blink of the eye—they’d lie to you in a second, so it’s no big deal.” (Sort of an inverted golden rule, “Do unto others the rotten things they’re likely to do to you.”) He actually made it sound like a matter of principle. I was supposed to feel guilty—or at least stupid—for insisting on telling the truth.

When I went to another place down the street to get their price quotes, I found that children twelve and under were half price. “How old are your kids,” he asked. I said one of my daughters was eleven but the other, who was standing there with me, was thirteen.

“No sweat,” he assured me. “Just say she’s twelve. They’ll never know.”

I replied, “But that’s not true. We’re not going to lie.”

“Look, what’s the difference? Just say she’s twelve.”

“Nope. I’m trying to teach my children that telling the truth is important.”

He gave me the strangest look, not condemning, just bewildered. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK. That’s cool. Whatever.” At least he was willing to tolerate my convictions, even if they did seem odd and foolish.

Other than a great object lesson about values to discuss with my daughters, what was notable about these encounters? I believe they are a small but revealing snapshot of the moral decline of our culture. Multiply them by a million daily situations in business, school, family and government—any one of which by itself might seem harmless and insignificant—and you have a picture of a monumental moral drift. The cumulative results of “little deceptions” are everywhere evident in the moral chaos surrounding us.

Telling the truth is no longer normal. (Watch the entertaining sitcom Home Improvement and just count the number of times family members routinely lie to each other.) In America, a man can lie about his past, violate his marriage vows, make promises he has no intention of keeping, and break those promises without a shred of guilt. Indeed, he can deny he actually made them in the first place, or make you feel like he is breaking them as a matter of principle. And such a man can be more than just some cheap sleazy crook. He can be president of the United States.

Don’t misunderstand where I’m going here. This isn’t an article about Mr. Clinton’s immoral promises to the proabortion lobbyists. The president has kept those promises—I only wish he hadn’t. (Immoral promises should not be kept, but repented of and withdrawn.) Neither is it about the pro-homosexual promises. It isn’t about the morality of promises made, but about the morality of lying. No matter where you may stand on what is being lied about, the fact is that an extraordinary number of lies and broken promises have been coming out of the highest leader in our land, who should be one of the highest moral examples to whom we and our children can look.

My point is not partisan. This isn’t a Democrat/Republican issue, it’s a moral issue. There have been Republican presidents who have also lied. President Kennedy’s democratic adulteries and President Nixon’s republican paranoid deceptions while in office illustrate that this is a human problem that transcends politics.

What specifically am I talking about with Mr. Clinton? He promised spending cuts, we are getting spending increases. He promised deficit reduction, we are getting deficit expansion. He promised middle class tax cuts. He then changed the promise to no middle class tax increases. The truth? We are getting middle class tax increases. He promised the days of pork and payoffs were over, yet his job stimulus plan is full of pork and payoffs to those who supported his campaign.

After his repeated moral outrage at President Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes” promise, which Mr. Bush took two years to break (and which I do not defend), our new president broke equally emphatic promises within two months of his inauguration.

Then we get lies to cover lies. Our president says when he made his promises about tax cuts, he thought the deficit was a lot less than $346 billion, and he was the victim of a deficit cover-up by the previous administration. Yet it is an historical fact that last July, in his campaign speeches, Mr. Clinton said the deficit was $400 billion. What are we to conclude from this but that he has not just broken his promises but deliberately lied to justify his promise breaking?

Is it fair to say that one of the tools Mr. Clinton used to get elected was telling falsehoods, and since that strategy served him well, he continues to use it? Am I being unfair? If so, give me facts that show I’m wrong. I’m honestly open. I want to be fair. I want to be able to trust my president. (And if he was prolife and opposed the homosexual agenda, yes I would feel the same way about these specific dishonesties.)

Lying is contagious. Once it’s an option, you don’t reserve it for the big things, you use it even with the little ones. Like the private jogging track built around the White House. When someone asked if this was being paid for by tax dollars, instead of being honest and saying “yes” (no doubt Republican presidents have spent far more tax money on far less worthy projects) the Clinton people said “No, it’s private donations.” Since this was false, they then scrambled to try to find private donors. In other words, they lied because it was politically expedient to do so, then tried to alter reality to conform to their lie, to make it look like it was true all along.

This episode brings to mind a parent saying through a locked bathroom door, “Johnny, are you smoking in there?” Johnny whips the cigarette out of his mouth and flushes it down the toilet. Then he says “No, I’m not smoking.” Any good parent will be less concerned about Johnny’s experiment with smoking than with his deception and cover-up. It’s not the White House track that concerns me—it’s the lies. And especially the reflexive, almost automatic and routine ways lies are used. In all of our lives there will be occasional lies that must be confessed and repented of. But then there is the habitual use of deception to accomplish one’s goals. The spiritual implications of choosing such a path of deception are considerable when you look at Revelation 22:15, which says that among those who have no place in heaven is “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

Allow me just one more example, one with tragic results. During the campaign, Bill Clinton said President Bush’s policy toward Haitian refugees was “immoral.” He promised that if elected he would immediately open America’s doors to them. But a strange thing happened. Many of those living in Haiti actually believed Mr. Clinton. When he was elected, it was a great day for them, for it meant sanctuary, a new place to live, a fresh start in the greatest country on earth. In direct response to Clinton’s election, thousands of Haitians disassembled the wood shacks they lived in, and used the materials to build boats to take them to America. Hundreds drowned in the attempt. Those who made it found that the new president simply broke his promise. Then he reinstated the exact policy he had called “immoral.” (Again, my point is not what policy is right—my point is promise making and promise breaking, truth telling and lying.)

Most Americans, of course, would not have staked their lives on such promises. Why? Because we are so used to being lied to. We don’t expect to be told the truth by our leaders, and we rarely have reason to be surprised.

Some people just laugh and call the president “Clinocio.” They draw political cartoons with his nose growing. Some just wink and turn the other way. But I find it hard to laugh when the highest official in this country views truth as dispensable, something to be changed, manipulated and used for one’s own purposes, rather than something which determines and judges the worth of one’s purposes and actions.

What is even more frightening is that I suspect Mr. Clinton sincerely believes he is an honest man. Like an alcoholic who has no clue he has a problem, he can rationalize every deception and broken promise as not only acceptable, but good and right. I have counseled with compulsive liars, whom I have personally liked. But their likability does not minimize the gravity of their problem. I find some things quite likable about our new president. But this doesn’t minimize his problem with deception. In fact, his winsome spirit can itself be a tool which facilitates his lying. Indeed, the winsome spirit can become part of the lie. (Frankly, I think Bill Clinton has a much better chance of making people like him while lying to them than Richard Nixon ever had.)

Here is a man who, in my opinion, relates better to children than any president we’ve had in decades. Children all over America are being inspired by our new president. He listens to them, hugs them and treats them with respect. (Provided they have managed to escape being aborted.) We emulate those whom we elevate. Will they follow his example of lying when it serves their own purposes? If they lied to their parents and teachers and friends the way he has lied to people across this nation, what would it do to the moral fibre of our country? (Look around. We are beginning to find out.)

Of course, I will have to answer to God for my deceptions, just as Mr. Clinton will have to answer to God for his. I sincerely pray for the man, that he would be God’s tool, and I feel no animosity toward him. I respect the gravity and difficulty of the position he is in. And I have hope that God can use that very thing to grab hold of him. But if I am to be honest, I must face the facts of his current character flaw.

I could wish Mr. Clinton was just an aberration from basic American honesty. But I’m afraid his telling falsehoods is not a matter of him leading America down the wrong path. Rather, it is a product of America’s already having gone down that path. Bill Clinton’s character is not the root of America’s problems. It is their fruit. American decline is not the product of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is the product of American decline. And almost everyone of us who bemoans society’s current conditions must take some responsibility for them, whether by our actions or our failure to act.

Take your American citizen that cheats on his wife, his customers and his taxes. Does he have the right to expect his president to be honest? Why do we elect dishonest politicians? Because honesty, like sexual purity, is not important enough to us to make it a decisive issue in who we vote for. And dishonesty is so natural and familiar to us that it does not offend us. (Unless we are its specific victims—I dare say if we were related to the Haitians who sacrificed their lives on Bill Clinton’s word, we would feel differently.) It is hard to hold our leaders to standards that we ourselves have abandoned. According to researchers James Patterson and Peter Kim, as documented in their book The Day America Told the Truth, only one out of three Americans now agrees with the statement “Honesty is the best policy.” When we get dishonest politicians—of whom Mr. Clinton is not the aberration but the norm—are we not getting what we deserve? Reaping what we’ve sowed?

When I was in the former Soviet Union two years ago, I had the privilege of interacting with many people, Christians and nonchristians. I learned that after seventy years of communism, people were deeply disillusioned about the future of their nation. What was the primary reason? It was much more than the bankruptcy of socialism. It was because they had been repeatedly lied to by their leaders. Idealism fades when people are deceived. A society cannot function without trust. People need to trust their politicians, pastors, bankers, mechanics, shopkeepers and police officers. Where there is no trust, families and churches and nations cannot function properly.

While Marxism deserved to fall, we are naive to think that our own social system can withstand the barrage of dishonesty it has been undergoing for the last few decades. Without honesty there is no integrity, and without integrity, we as a nation are nothing. None of our past successes can compensate for our present lack of integrity.

No matter how deep our problems are, if we respect the truth—ranging from the scientific truth about preborn babies to the economic truth about the national debt to the sociological truth about the problems in our public schools—at least we have hope of making progress. But if there is no admission of truth there can be no progress. Neither can there be hope.

Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But in the previous part of his sentence (verse 31), rarely quoted, he laid out a conditional formula: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The truth cannot set us free until we know the truth. And the only way to know the truth is to hold to his teaching. Our nation no longer holds to Christ’s teaching. So, we stare truth in the face and call it falsehood, and stare lies in the face and call them “Truth.”

We cannot hold to Christ’s teaching unless we hold to Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). The truth is more than just a bunch of isolated facts. The truth is embodied in a person—a compassionate, caring and just Truth-teller, who is our Creator, our Savior and our Judge. To embrace him is to embrace truth. To reject him is to reject truth.

A veteran politician named Pilate once asked a lower class Jewish carpenter, ”What is truth?” Ironically, the Answer was the very person he was asking. But, so accustomed to error and so desensitized by falsehood, Pilate failed to see who was before him. As a result he not only missed the Truth, he ended up nailing Truth to a cross. Individuals, families, churches, communities and nations that do not value and uphold truth inevitably end up first disregarding, then disdaining truth.

Any attempt to divorce the Truth (Christ) from the truth (that which is factual) will inevitably result in eviscerating truth. All truth needs a foundation to make it solid, and a heart to make it living and vibrant. Jesus is both the foundation and the heart of truth.

Here, today, the Truth can set us free. But once this life is over, so too is our opportunity to choose the role Truth will play in us. If we have not allowed Truth to be our Liberator in this life, then we leave nothing for Truth but to be our Judge in the next.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries