It is a presidential election year. The national conventions are behind us and the campaigns rage all around us. And the fact checkers tell us that both political parties are lying about each other – small “bend the truth” or “leave out the truth” lies, and big “pants on fire” lies. Politicians always cast themselves in the best possible light, and their opponents in the worst possible light. We know that. And we know that at times we do it, too. We stretch the truth, or hide the truth, or even tell a straight up lie.
But two things about the lies being told in the presidential campaign are deeply troubling. One is that, in some significant cases, the liars have been unwilling to change their claims when faced with countervailing facts. The other is that a significant portion of the public goes on believing the lies even when presented with countervailing facts. Political opinions seem impervious to truth. When informed of the facts by an interviewer, I have heard supporters of one candidate or the other say that they still believe the lie because they trust their candidate and don’t trust the other candidate. So, the attack ads and the accusations continue, on both sides, to feed the outrage and motivate conviction and commitment to their cause. The truth seems irrelevant.
As a person of faith and a Christian minister, I understand the necessity of belief, conviction and commitment. I know that I, too, believe things in the face of countervailing evidence. I believe in the goodness of God, even when the world may seem evil and hateful. I believe that death is not the end of life, even in the absence of convincing evidence of life after death. I believe in the power of prayer even when my prayers seem ineffective. Persisting in one’s beliefs, convictions and commitments in the face of countervailing evidence is not irrational. But it is dangerous. And it is, in truth, the downside of faith.
It is good to have faith. It is good to have faith in and be committed to one’s God, and one’s country, and one’s friends and family, and even one’s president or presidential candidate. But it is not good to insulate one’s faith from truth. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus came not to reaffirm the religious faith of his day, but to challenge that faith and offer something new – a new religious perspective, a new relationship to God, a new way of being in the world. Those who followed Jesus were those willing to change their minds, to be converted to a new way of thinking and being and living.
This is the true challenge of faith: to hold fast to one’s beliefs, convictions and commitments, while remaining open to conversion. We must remain open to the possibility of new truth – open to the possibility, indeed the reality – the certain truth, that our current knowledge, faith, beliefs and convictions are not perfect. A strong and healthy faith comes from genuine interaction with countervailing challenges in search of a more perfect truth. Our finite truth, knowledge and wisdom will always be imperfect and incomplete, and at times even askew. Strong and healthy faith (whether that faith be in God, country, cause or another person) humbly knows this.
I pray that we as Americans might work at being strong, but not closed in our faith, committed but not impervious in our convictions. And compassionate toward those who believe differently from us.