Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

By now, Rudy Giuliani’s infamous declaration to NBC’s Chuck Todd (“Truth isn’t truth”) is being touted as a strong candidate for the epitaph to the Trump presidency. Probably too early, but it is indicative of the importance of truth in the Trump administration, that bastion of alternative facts.
According to the Washington Post’s fact-checking service, “In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims. Now, just six months later, he has almost doubled that total.” In his first 558 days in office, Trump made 4,229 false or misleading statements. I’ll do the math for you. That’s 7.58 lies per day. But that statistic is misleading. As the Post points out, during his first 365 days, Trump lied at a rate of 5.86 per day. Over the next 193 days, Trump upped his average to a whopping 10.82 lies per day. There are several explanations for the rapid increase—his growing insecurity over the Mueller investigation, his firing or chasing away of advisors who attempted to rein in his fibbing, his expanding belief that his true devotees don’t care whether he is truthful or not—but whatever combination of factors has produced this blatant assault on truth, it is not healthy for our democratic republic. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.
Personally, I have always had a strong attachment to the truth. I don’t like being lied to, by anyone. As an editor, I have a professional interest in truth. In fact, as I have stated on this blog before, some time ago I came to the conclusion that it is not my responsibility to defend Joseph Smith or the Church. It is my responsibility to defend the truth, even though truth is sometimes very difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, we try. We must. At BYU Studies, we try to get double-blind peer reviews of all articles to make sure the material passes scholarly muster, and we send our student interns to the library or the internet to source check these articles. I am sometimes disappointed in what they discover. I will never forget an article that somehow made it through our review process but nevertheless demonstrated why source checking is so important. When our intern handed me her copy of the article, I found the following comment in the margins in eighteen different places: “The source doesn’t say this.” Argh. The article ended up being published, but it was vastly different from the article the author had submitted. Playing fast and loose with sources gets under my skin.
Another article troubled me from the moment I read it. It was an examination of the legal cases surrounding the ultimate demise of Joseph Smith. Central to this article, of course, was the Nauvoo Expositor episode. But not once in this long article was the word polygamy ever mentioned. I came as close to going ballistic over this article as I have ever come. It represented the type of one-sided, apologetic history that has gotten the Church in a lot of hot water and has caused faith crises in numerous Church members. In the end, the article was published, and although I was not completely pleased with the result, at least it contained some of the necessary context surrounding Joseph Smith’s death.
This last example raises an important point regarding truth. It is possible to make only factual statements and still mislead. If you cherry-pick evidence so that you’re telling only half the story, you can come to totally unwarranted conclusions. Now, I realize it is impossible to give all evidence, and objectivity is always an unreachable goal, but the closer we come to giving a balanced, complete, and objective accounting of the facts, the better the result will be.
Truth can be a tricky thing. Sometimes all we have to go on is sketchy evidence or carefully crafted arguments employing logic and deduction. As Mormons, we sometimes think revelation solves all problems regarding religious truth. But revelation has not produced a theology that is without contradictions or gaping holes. LDS theology has morphed and shifted over time. Some of the “truths” we now accept disagree with earlier LDS teachings or with Book of Mormon theology. In fact, the deeper I dig, the less I feel certain of. Everything is more complicated than a superficial treatment will indicate.
In Mormondom, we have become so dependent on certainty that we no longer ask difficult theological questions or expect our leaders to seek theological revelations. Most of the revelations our leaders receive nowadays are purely administrative in nature, not theological. Perhaps this is due to the mistaken assumption that our theology is settled, that there are no more questions to answer. But our theology is far from complete. Some of the most basic questions remain unanswered.
I’ve wondered if this laziness among Mormons in seeking truth (or in assuming we already possess it) has any connection to the fact that we, as a demographic group, vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates. Over the past thirty years or so, the whole conservative project has moved steadily away from rigorous policy debate and has embraced governance by sloganeering. The anti-intellectual climate in the GOP is so strong now that anyone who actually knows anything is considered suspect and branded as an “elite.” Expertise is a dirty word, especially among Trumpettes. The Donald has enshrined ignorance and intellectual laziness as hallmarks of his faux-populist movement.
 I am disappointed that so many Mormons still support Trump and turn a blind eye to the moral vacuum this man has brought to politics. I believe this says something about us as a people, and what it says is not complimentary. Truth is important. Without a fundamental commitment to truth by political leaders, regular citizens like you and me lose the ability to trust what our elected representatives say. We lose confidence in their motives, their intentions, and their policies. If they say one thing and the results prove that they have been playing us for suckers, we simply cannot trust them, unless we are so gullible that we will believe anything.
The Trump presidency is a disaster on so many fronts that it is a full-time job just staying abreast of the latest outrages and ethical lapses. The events of the past few days give almost irrefutable evidence to what should have obvious all along. Trump appears to be completely amoral. In marriage, in business, and in politics, he has shown that he believes no rule, no law applies to him. And he has surrounded himself with individuals who are as corrupt as he is. Some would excuse Trump with the truism that all politicians are corrupt, all politicians lie. But that is a weak argument.
I was disappointed in my fellow Mormon Mitt Romney in his run for the presidency. In 2012, fact checkers routinely found that Romney was significantly more untruthful than President Obama. Hilary Clinton, by the way, was untruthful about as frequently as Obama. Romney’s trouble with the truth likely has much to do with his Republican roots. You simply cannot espouse some Republican positions without being disingenuous. It has been said before that facts tend to have a liberal bias. This is becoming more and more true as the Republican Party follows its recent trajectory and now fully embraces Trumpism. Supply-side economics and human-caused climate change are two obvious examples of how Republican talking points are simply “alternative facts.”
But I would take Romney in a heartbeat over the current president. I believe Romney is a decent human being with good intentions (and some faulty reasoning). Despite my disagreement with some of his positions on issues, I don’t believe a Romney presidency would have damaged our democracy. Trump, on the other hand, is a danger to everything good about America. He has no acquaintance at all with truth. Giuliani’s brazen claim that “truth isn’t truth” illustrates the moral cesspool you end up in if you do not even know what truth is. If you assume that whatever you say is truth, you end up making ridiculous claims and always having to engage in mental and verbal gymnastics just to try to explain away what you have said.
Truth is indeed truth, and although it can sometimes be difficult to discern, pathological liars like Trump never even concern themselves with the search for it. If it is your goal, however, you will never mislead intentionally, and people will know they can trust you. What we need in this country is a greater commitment to truth, regardless of partisan politics.

P.S. In case you were wondering, no, I am not going to change the name of this blog because of the recent proclamation by President Nelson. While his hope is undoubtedly noble, this new emphasis is ultimately impractical (or possibly impossible) in the real world. It reminds me a great deal of the shift from home teaching to “ministering.” The ramifications don’t appear to have been thought through carefully before the change was announced. Consequently, I am no longer a home teacher. But I’m told I am also not a minister. This program was installed without even a name for what we ministering people are supposed to call ourselves. “Hi, Sister Jensen, Brother Holmes and I are your new, um, whatever home teachers are now supposed to be called.” It’s awkward, to say the least.