Sunday, October 14, 2012

Questions of Character

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
. .. who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    (Psalm 15)
"You shall not repeat a false report . . .Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong. . . Exodus 23:1-2 (NAB)
Last Monday I sat down to watch the first Presidential debate. I was busy the night it aired, but after hearing so much about who won, and why, I felt convinced I needed to watch it.

I wasn’t looking so much for who had the best zingers, who seemed most in control, who dominated the conversation, but for any hint of wisdom, humility, patience, grace, compassion.  I had in mind an issue raised in the list of values and questions from the Miroslav Volf page I mentioned last week: “The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.”

What struck me most was the level of contradiction I heard in Romney’s arguments, and the ferocity with which he repeated some of the statements most in conflict with things he’s said before. I had spent time the evening before looking through his website with a friend trying to write a comparison essay for a college class and was surprised to hear Romney saying things that seemed strangely out of step with his own published positions.

I found myself increasingly uncomfortable as he sharply contradicted the President when Obama tried to hold him to previously stated positions, when he sharply contradicted things I’ve heard him say before, in effect said “I didn’t say that” to statements any researcher could easily prove he said.

I was reminded, watching him, of kids I’ve worked with who are gifted at spinning stories with little bearing on the truth. It sometimes feels like a family thing: if a child grows up in a household where adults will say whatever works, their children will do the same, with energy, conviction and a scary sense of outrage when met with disbelief by reasonable adults who dare to question obvious, easily-countered lies. In the game of manipulation, truth will lose to power every time.

I try – hard – to be charitable to those whose views don’t align with mine. We all want to do what’s right, don’t we? We just start in different places, and sometimes come to different conclusions.

I understand that factual accuracy is hard in a complicated, constantly changing arena. And I understand that “spin” is part of the discourse of the day. I understand as well that things promised are not always easily delivered.

But is there a point where the spin goes too far? Or the promises are too facile, too quickly set aside?
And what should we conclude when those who should be advocating for truth fall back on the weary, adolescent defense: “They started it! And everybody does it!”

What happens to a culture where “truth” is twisted and contorted by those who claim to defend it, where “facts” are whatever works in the moment, even for those who insist truth can be known, who contend that Truth – with a capital T - should be the foundation of what we do and say? Those who decry the dangers of relativism should watch carefully as leaders who should stand most firmly for honesty in public discourse pass on lies themselves when it serves their political agendas.

Yes, the fact checkers have been having a busy time, with fallacies attributed to both sides, and deceptive ads generated by a widening mix of players.

Again – is there a point where the deceptions go too far?

It’s not hard to find clear documentation of Romney fabrications. Just google “Romney lies,” or “Romney contradictions.” Steve Benen, one of Rachel Maddow’s producers, has been “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” since last January, with a new list of lies posted each Friday.  A Ron Paul supporter took another tack, with video documentation of Romney contradictions in The Ultimate Mitt Romney Flip Flop Collection, created last April.

The documented lies and contradictions are large and small, passionate, puzzling, strange. Sweet stories about political moments with his dad: didn’t take place.  Insistent memories of specific career changes: don’t agree with facts. Earnest affirmations to wealthy donors: contradicted from the public stage.

And then there are the deceptions employed as business strategy, from pushing  young colleagues to “falsify” their identities to spy out competitors operations, to hiding profits in off-shore tax havens, to promoting profit at the expense of public good in the fragile young Russian economy.
Add the endless untrue accusations throughout the primary, primary debates, convention, through to today about opponents' policies, plans, practices, personal histories And the constant changes of position: last October former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman described Romney as a "perfectly lubricated weather vane on all the major issues of the day." At the same time, Brit Hume of Fox News suggested: "you are only allowed a certain number of flips before people begin to doubt your character. And i think Romney exhausted his quota sometime back."

Interesting that Republicans most vociferous about Romney’s lies during the primary now cry “partisan” when that pattern of dishonesty is again brought to public attention.

A June, 2012 column in Time magazine, by psychoanalyst Justin Frank, explored “The Root of Mitt Romney’s Comfort with Lying.” Dr. Frank probed Romney’s roots in the Mormon faith, and the fraudulent claims at the heart of that tradition, suggesting that for Romney, authority trumps truth:
“[I]n the Mormon Church, there was a decision to accept authority as true — whether or not evidence supported it. Hence Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith in 1820, claimed he was illiterate and received the Book of Mormon directly from God. But he could read, and read very well.
“This unwavering faith is central to Romney’s comfort in deflecting any examples that the press might bring up of his lying. Further, it allows him to repeat lies again and again — both personally and in political advertising — because to him they are not lies at all. I’m reminded of that old epigram from the 1960s: ‘My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.’ That may be all good and well in many offices, but it’s not so good in the Oval Office.”
Frank’s very non-pc comments sent me digging further, to testimony by those who have left the Mormon faith, decrying the duplicity endorsed and encouraged by church leaders, and warning of the culture of secrecy and dishonest authority woven throughout Mormon history. Spend time examining the roots of Mormonism and it becomes clear that Joseph Smith, the founding "prophet," was a convicted con man and shameless self-promoter, hungry for money, power, and women.

The Mormon Delusion, Jim Whitefield
Park Romney, Mitt Romney’s second cousin, served like Mitt as a high priest in the Mormon Church, but became an “apostate” when he concluded that the Mormon faith is an "insidious contemporary fraud.” In a brief discussion of Romney’s presidential candidacy, he notes the extensive documentation of dishonesty throughout the history of the church (summarized on his website, with links to sources):
“The inescapable questions that we are left with, as they relate to the campaign of Mitt Romney, are not whether we are comfortable with Mormonism as our President’s religion; not whether Mormonism is a cult; not whether Mormonism is compatible with Christianity; not whether Polygamy is good or bad; not whether the average lay member of the Mormon Church is a good citizen who we are reticent to offend; but rather, whether Mitt Romney, a current High Priest of the Mormon Church, and former regional church leader, is aware that his religion is a demonstrable contemporary fraud in which the leadership of the Church are exploiting the faith of the lay members in extracting countless millions of dollars in tithing receipts, a significant portion of which being invested in world-wide commercial enterprises controlled by the Church, and real estate development in down town Salt Lake City, and all over the world? Is the man in whom so many hope to place all of their hope and faith for a brighter future for America, and in whom they will rely for the assessment of intelligence briefings that are the basis of world-wide military action, aware of the unmistakable, and incontestable evidence that his Church is a fraud? If he is aware, how do we escape the conclusion that he is a party to this fraud, as a High Priest of the Mormon Church. . . . If he is not aware that it is a fraud, amidst glaringly unmistakable evidence . . . then shall we not have profoundly serious questions about his judgment?  
Park Romney's questions are worth considering.

Another question: What happens when leaders put political expedience ahead of allegiance to truth?

And another: What happens to a people willing to accept what they're told rather than do the work of checking sources, listening more carefully, and coming to conclusions of their own?

Does truth matter? And is faith a simple game of follow-the-leader?

Jesus and the prophets had strong things to say about leaders who misused their power to maintain control and serve themselves, and both Old and New Testaments are full of warnings about testing what’s said, discerning the truth, praying for wisdom. Unfortunately, concerns about truth, my own included, are far more likely to be met with ad hominem attacks or cries of “they do it too!” than with prayerful investigation.
Friend deceives friend,
    and no one speaks the truth.
They have taught their tongues to lie;
    they weary themselves with sinning.
You live in the midst of deception . . .
     (Jeremiah 9)
“In the midst of deception,” I find myself praying for the wisdom so sadly lacking in our current political debate, and for the ability, for myself, our leaders, and fellow voters, to step past partisan blinders to see and do what’s true:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5)
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3)
This is part of a continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.