(This article appeared in WORLD magazine, August 28, 1999.)
The filthiness of our national politics has brought to my mind a question put to me nearly 20 years ago by one of my teachers. “Don’t you think there is more lying in politics than there used to be?” he asked. “Why do you think that this is happening?”
At the time, young oaf that I was, I thought his question silly. But after thinking lo these 20 years, I would like to try to answer it.
Our statesmen do lie more, and for the same reasons that most of us lie more. There are seven degrees of descent on the downward staircase of honesty. Not all of us are at the bottom, but most of us are at a lower stair than we admit.
The first and topmost stair is simply sin. The greater our trespasses, the more we have to lie about. We lie about money, sex, and our children because we sin about money, sex, and our children. A turning point in both public and private life came in the early ‘70’s, when we legalized the private use of lethal violence against babies yet unborn. The justification of such staggering betrayal takes more lies than there are words to tell them.
The second stair is self-protection. Lies are weaklings; they need bodyguards. Even the smallest prevarication needs a ring of perjuries to keep from being seen. But each new lie needs its own protective ring. Pretty soon the liar is smothered in layers of mendacity, as numerous as onion shells, as thick as flannel blankets.
Third down is habituation. We make habits of everything; it is part of our nature. Courage and magnanimity become habits, and so does the chewing of gum. In time lying too becomes a habit. After you have lied awhile for need, you begin to lie without need. It becomes second nature. You hardly notice that you do it. Asked why, you can give no reason. You have crossed the border between lying and being a liar.
Underneath the previous stair is self-deception, for beyond a certain point, a person starts losing track of truth. Your heart cannot bear to believe that you lie as hugely as you do, so to relieve the rubbing, itching, pricking needles of remorse, you half-believe your own lies.
Rationalization follows next in order. As your grasp on the truth continues to weaken, you come to blame its weakness on truth itself. It’s so slippery, so elusive, who can hold it? It changes shape, moves around, just won’t sit still. Not at all fair of it, but everything is shades of gray anyway. How silly to believe in absolutes. Truth is what we let each other get away with, that’s all.
Sixth comes technique. Lying becomes a craft. For example, you discover that a great falsehood repeated over and over works even better than a small one. Nobody can believe that you would tell such a whopper; therefore, you have a motive to make every lie a whopper. This technique, called the Big Lie after a remark in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, is not a monopoly of politicians; probably no one uses it in public life before he has practiced it in private. Our American variation on the Big Lie works by numbers instead of size. If you lie about everything, no matter how small, nobody can believe you would tell so many lies. The whistleblowers exhaust themselves trying to keep up with you, and eventually they have blown their whistles so many times that people think that they must be the liars. By the time a few of your lies are found out, the virtue of honesty has become so discredited that no one cares whether you are lying or not. “They all do it.”
The seventh and bottommost stair is that morality turns upside-down. Why does this happen? Because the moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.
This is where we are, and this is who we are becoming. The problem is not just in our politicians, for they came from us and we elected them. How serious are we about Truth? Do we dare finally yield our hearts, words, and deeds to Truth Himself, to be scraped, scoured, and made honest until they can give back His light?
J. Budziszewski is the author of The Revenge of Conscience. He has taught at the University of Texas for over fifteen years. An adult Sunday school teacher and lay Christian counselor, he left his Christian upbringing and abandoned his faith shortly after entering college and did not return to the Lord until ten years later. This experience made him acutely aware of the struggles Christian students face when entering college and prompted him to write another excellent book, How to Stay Christian in College.
This article appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Eternal Perspectives