“You don’t need to worry so much,” my wise and insightful mother told me once, “about the person who tells you big lies. You’ll almost certainly recognize the games that person is playing with you. Worry instead about the little lies that someone feeds you all along the way—the ones that seem inconsequential. They’re the ones that will trip you up.”
I thought about that a couple of weeks ago when The New Republic reported how President Obama, during an interview about gun control, had replied to a question about whether he had ever personally fired a gun. “Yes, in fact,” the president said, “up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”
But then, when reporters pursued details on the subject, the White House stubbornly refused to document the President’s claim. After a long, two-week wait, a single photo of the President taking aim at some target somewhere was posted. But his claim that “we do skeet shooting all the time” was not even closely documented. It was, apparently, one of those “white lies” we have come to think are acceptable in society today. And if there was any furor in the media, it was short-lived, just like the missing media furor over administration lies about the terrorist attack on Benghazi last September.
All that, it struck me, had special significance during these days when a parade of the president’s men—mostly new appointees to his cabinet—were streaming past panels of congressional questioners to confirm their knowledge and views on a variety of topics. The assumption was, of course, that in so formal a context, everyone would be especially careful to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Much of the testimony was “under oath,” quietly reminding everyone that a too-casual reference to skeet shooting that in fact never happened might come back to haunt the person giving the testimony.
Fudging the truth in little matters always leads unavoidably to loss of trust in bigger matters. God has created His system of reality in just such a manner—and it’s why my mother was right. So I can’t help remembering the account of a long-time friend, a loyal WORLD subscriber who moonlighted as a school bus driver in Pennsylvania. “Are you chewing gum?” my friend asked one of his student riders who knew the rules forbad it. “No,” the boy averred, as a wad big enough to choke a cow slipped visibly out of his mouth. “Do you know the Ten Commandments?” my friend pursued his prevaricating passenger. “Yes,” he said—but then quickly changed it to a hopeful “Only a few.” “Name me one,” said my friend. “Freedom of the press,” the young man tried valiantly—as he dug his hole deeper and deeper.
But public officials these days never seem to get caught in the depths of the holes they dig. Lying has become a way of life for political candidates of every brand and label. Google “Obama Lies,” and you’ll stir up 124 million responses. Try “Romney Lies,” and you’ll get 21 million more. Both listings, of course, are created largely by political opponents. Even so, they display a disheartening picture of what has happened to truth-telling in the public sector.
Here’s the biggest danger: What’s to keep basic honesty, in the years just ahead, from slipping right off the far edge of the platform of biblical morality? If we play games with the little fibs we tell (like skeet shooting), who’s to say we won’t follow soon with bigger lies (like congressional testimony, under oath)?
A faithful WORLD subscriber reminded me this week how far and how quickly we’ve moved on the issue of homosexual commitments—racing in a few short years from “taboo/criminal → toleration → acceptance → approval → normalization → protection → preferential treatment.” Indeed, what’s to keep the same pattern from repeating itself with reference to a variety of moral issues? Who’s to say we won’t soon be applauding public officials for the beauty and artistry of their bald-faced lies? It may even become a qualification for office.
But we do need to ask ourselves whether it’s possible, once it has lost so basic a tool as truth-telling, for a nation to continue to govern itself.