“Speaking Truth in a Time of Alternative Facts”

February 5, 2017


Isaiah 59:9-15a

Matthew 5:33-37


The ancient prophet, Isaiah, speaks to our fear: “Truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking.”

Jesus calls his followers to an honesty of speaking that demands truthfulness in all words, demands that we would be faithful in our commitments to one another and to God: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

How far we have descended in how short a time.

Remember long ago, back in September? POLITICO, subjected every statement— in speeches, in interviews and on Twitter — made by both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President over a one week period to their rigorous fact-checking process. The conclusion, they said, was inescapable: “Donald Trump’s mishandling of facts and propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceeded Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.”

According to the five-day analysis, Trump averaged about one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds over nearly five hours of remarks. In raw numbers, that’s 87 erroneous statements in five days.

What they called Clinton’s “detours from the truth” were rarer and more targeted: in just over 1½ hours of remarks, the former secretary of state averaged one falsehood every 12 minutes.[i] Maybe not as many as her competitor, but still…

By December, Francine Prose—and isn’t that a wonderful name for a writer?—Francine Prose wrote with astonishment: “Truth Is Evaporating before Our Eyes.” She said that “Newt Gingrich, among others, has been informing us that facts and statistics no longer count so much as feelings, suspicions, prejudices and anecdotal evidence.” Prose warned: “We have begun to hear that we are living in a ‘post-truth era,’ a period in which those in power get to decide what is true and what isn’t.” [ii]

All of this came to a head a couple of weeks ago after the President insisted, contrary to the facts, that he had a larger crowd at his inauguration than President Obama had at his first inauguration. Yes, it was a petty quibble. But at Trump press secretary Sean Spicer’s first televised news conference, Spicer castigated the press for its “dishonest” and “shameful” reporting, lied about the inauguration day events and numbers, and took no questions. When confronted with Spicer’s outright lies, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told NBC that Spicer had merely given “alternative facts”—leaving the “visibly exasperated” Chuck Todd to break in saying: “Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered. . .were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts; they're falsehoods.”

How far we have descended in how short a time.

We could laugh at the controversy about inaugural crowds. Or we might simply throw our hands up in despair.

But truth and lies have consequences.

The consequences are personal: A recent study in Nature Neuroscience showed that our brains become more desensitized with each successive falsehood. The more we lie, the less the brain responds. Our own small acts of dishonesty have a cumulative effect upon us.

And the consequences are social and political: Aleksander Kwasniewski, [kashnifski] Poland’s president from 1995 to 2005 once asked openly if it was possible for a politician to be honest at all, at the same time worrying that “When voters write off politicians as dishonest, anti-democratic movements thrive.” Honesty and the trust that honesty engenders are essential for a liberal democracy.

Truth and lies have consequences in our nation. At a private meeting two weeks ago the president claimed, without any evidence, that between three and five million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in November. This falsehood spread quickly, with Iowa’s own Representative Steve King saying that by his calculations at least 2.4 million undocumented immigrants are registered to vote. Within days there were a call for an investigation, plans for an executive order, and a promise from the vice president that there would be “a full evaluation of voting rolls.” False claims based on conspiracy theories now lead to policy decisions.

Truth and lies have consequences internationally. The Times reported this past week that diplomats draw a distinction between Mr. Trump’s plainly false assertions about crowd sizes or that millions of people voted illegally in the election and his hints about lifting sanctions on Russia or promises to rip up the Iran nuclear deal… From defense treaties to trade pacts, foreign leaders are struggling to gauge whether they can depend on the United States to honor its commitments. They are sizing up a fickle president, the Times says, whose erroneous remarks on small issues cast doubt on what he might say on the big ones that involve war and peace.[iii]

We have watched these developments out of a living faith that calls our speaking and our words into account.

This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to help us. He said that “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”[iv]

We are called to be sure that what comes forth from our mouths will give life, not death, blessing, not curse.

And along with other people of faith, we are called to insist on honesty on the part of those who seek to serve the public good by leading in government. Each one of us individually and all of us together are crucial to this effort. So Aleksander Kwasniewski reminds us that “Political honesty—and honest politicians—are more likely to take root in a society marked by a culture of tolerance, solidarity, and the equal enjoyment of individual rights.[v]

What I hear in that description—a culture of tolerance, solidarity, and the equal enjoyment of individual rights—is a part of what we seek to develop in this congregation. Such a community leads to deeper honesty. And if we can forge such a community here, we can be what we are called to be: the salt of the earth, the light of the world. That is, we as a congregation can encourage greater tolerance, solidarity, and equal rights in our city, state, and nation. From this community we can act in ways that encourage a greater political honesty in the wider world.

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking about the nature of love—that it is unconditionally truthful. He calls for a kind of plain-speaking: the truth of a simple yes or no.

This is both good news and a demanding charge: We are called to honesty in our speech because we are the ones who can bring about the political honesty that is needed for a liberal democracy to flourish.

So we are called to follow the centuries-old Quaker advice and speak truth to power, especially at a time when many would prefer our silent compliance.

There are those in power who don’t want to hear that they are not making our nation safer by ripping apart families, turning away refugees, and attacking Islam.

There are those in power who don’t want to hear about the ingrained institutional racism that plagues our nation and the growth of white supremacists.

There are those in power who don’t want to hear about the changes to our climate that will harm the world’s poor the most but will affect all of us.

There are those in power who don’t want to hear about the rights that belong to all people.

Speaking truth to power does require a certain self-awareness, a certain humility.  We must recognize our own tendency to, as Isaiah says, “conceive lying words and utter them from the heart.”  We can speak only as we stand under the judgment of the prophet that “Our transgressions indeed are with us.”

Let us also remember that, as the Quakers once told us, we, the people of this nation, are the final reservoir of power in this country and our values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.

The value we place on honesty will set the limits for those who exercise the authority they receive from the people.

Our continued expectation of honesty in the public square will set the limits for those who exercise the authority they receive from the people.

In the United States we still need to speak truth not only to those in elected office but also to those of us who put them there.

We need to speak truth not only to those who have great wealth but also to those of us who participate in an economy that fosters the great income and wealth inequality that will slowly destroy this nation.

We need to speak the truth not only to those who want to ratchet up fear of refugees and immigrants but also to those who live in the irrational fear that has been created.

Once again, we in the liberal church are called to important work. While we used to be able to assume that many outside the church held our values and expectations, we are now called to define and clarify what those values are and learn to speak about them in ways that can persuade others. This is not about moral superiority. It is about creating a society that honors each of its members, a society that speaks the truth, a society that seeks the peace that grows from justice.

It is easy—it is quite easy to stand in a pulpit and speak truth that will never be heard by politicians. It is quiet easy to stand in Rockwood Hall with a cup of coffee and speak truth that the power elites of our nation will not hear.

The more difficult task is to speak truth that will be heard by our neighbors, so that they will join us in setting the limits for those who exercise authority.

The more difficult task is to find effective ways to speak truth that will be heard by those who do exercise authority, whose actions affect the lives of millions, who hold the fate of our planet in the balance.

Remember, however, that these more difficult tasks are not impossible.

Let us seek the truth and speak the truth.