Politics and Truth

Kenneth W. Brewer

I am concerned about our current climate of political polarization. My concern is not that people have different views about a wide range of issues or that they come to different conclusions. What concerns me most is that there is a lack of concern about what is true. What concerns me is that politics has usurped the concern for truth, even for many Christians. There are Christians who no longer care about truth, reason, evidence, facts, or experts as long as their political views prevail. Truth has been politicized. When truth is politicized, truth no longer matters.

Pontius Pilate illustrates this fact. In a dialogue with Pilate, Jesus reveals, “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). Pilate feigns interest in truth when he asks, “What is truth?” He tells the shouting crowd that he finds no basis for the charges against Jesus. The crowd persists in wanting Jesus crucified. Pilate questions Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t answer him. Pilate threatens Jesus that he has power over his life and death. Jesus retorts that Pilate has no power that was not given him by God. The crowd confronts Pilate with a hypothetical either/or: If you let Jesus go free, “you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). Pilate caves in to the demands of the crowd. He hands Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate only gives lip service to truth. Pilate does not care about truth. Pilate ignores his wife’s message and advice that Jesus is innocent and had bad dreams because of him (Matt 27:19). Pilate knows what’s true but does not act on it. Pilate sides with the crowd. Pilate would rather be a friend of Caesar than a friend of the truth. Truth was set aside for politics.

There are many theories of knowledge. I don’t want to talk about them here. I am concerned with something more basic: caring about what is true. I believe that caring about what is true is a Christian virtue. Philosopher Linda Zagzebski (On Epistemology [Wadsworth, 2009]) claims that if we care about anything, we must care that our beliefs are true. Christians of all people should care about having true beliefs. She makes the point that our beliefs should be governed by a conscientious concern for truth. A conscientious concern for truth involves caring if our beliefs are true or false. We should want credibility, trust, trustworthiness in what we and in what others say. We should desire to hold and convey true, not false, beliefs. Zagzebski contends that conscientious belief is not optional in important matters. She maintains that it is morally wrong to be epistemologically unconscientious in our beliefs. We are ethically responsible to base our beliefs on truth, however difficult it may be to establish that truth. Caring about truth precedes theories of knowledge.

Princeton University philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, wrote a small book with the title On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). Frankfurt lays down the basic philosophical rule that we should speak with a conscientious regard for the truth. He makes a distinction between lying, hypocrisy, and BS. Lying is knowing the truth but deciding not to tell the truth. Hypocrisy is not living up to the truth we say we hold. BS is not having a proper concern for truth but wanting people to believe we do. Frankfurt says this is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, the habit of BSing causes one to lose the capacity to know what the truth is. Second, BSing undermines confidence that there is such a thing as objective truth or facts. Third, BSing causes people to cease caring about what is true and what is false. Fourth, BSers are narcissistically concerned with what others think about them rather than with what is actually the case.

Those committed to Jesus should be committed to truth-seeking, even if it conflicts with our political affiliation. Followers of Jesus ought to be careful not to let politics interfere with the pursuit of truth. For example, wearing facemasks and social distancing have become politicized. In reality, this has nothing to do with politics. Wearing facemasks and social distancing is based on science and medical expertise. It has nothing to do with your political affiliation whatsoever. Followers of Jesus also should not collude with lies, conspiracy theories, or BS. If Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth and if everyone who sides with truth listens to Jesus, then not caring about the truth means we don’t care about Jesus’s mission and we have stopped listening to him who is the Truth.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

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