To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site. (Also? I know I stumbled over/mispronounced a few words…but it was a really long blog post…and I just didn’t feel up to the task of re-recording it. I humbly ask for a bit of extra grace.)
Donald Trump is a crooked, underhanded con artist and…a spoiled, overgrown brat. – Matt Walsh on The Blaze
Trump mocks the disabled, calls women dogs, and advocates for the assassination of women and children. Hillary Clinton is a proven liar. They both have, in short, a lack of character. And people flock to them.
Why? Does it even matter? Is a person’s character at all important in this modern age or is it a relic of outdated morals? Character is more than merely important; it is vital to our society. It is important to people as individuals and it is important to society in its entirety.
When we can cheat and lie “just a little bit” and still think highly of ourselves, when we show our children that it is necessary to sometimes do insignificantly wrong things to get by, when it is more wrong to judge evil than to do evil, then we are in trouble. For our society to function well, we need people of character in leadership positions, from teachers and managers to mayors and governors.
What has happened in our world? Why do ordinary people care so little about acting in moral ways? Much of this dearth of character, this scarcity of virtue, comes from the rejection of the idea that truth is unchanging, that truth can be the same regardless of place or time. If truth is, at best, all relative and only a matter of perspective and, at worst, a social construct and simply whatever we make it to be, then why should anyone work to develop a character that may or may not be valid to anyone else? If there is no truth that we can deliberate over and discover together as a society (whatever that truth may be and wherever it may come from), we are left with, as Christian Cleric Richard John Neuhaus says, “power and propaganda and grievance and anger and caucuses and anti-caucuses and special interest groups and victims and vengeance.”
This concept of truth comes from our distinctly American philosophy of pragmatism (founded by William James, 1842-1910, who said that the true was only the expedient. Truth, in other words, is what works.). When society contains multiple competing ways of viewing the world, and when all of those ways are equally valid, then the only way to determine which viewpoint is most true is to determine which is most useful. If truth is simply what is most useful, then truth will change over time.
There is an assumption in much of society, in many of our universities especially, that we cannot keep society and relationships moving forward if we speak of one truth for all people because truth brings only conflict. Truth has become the loud uncle we are vaguely ashamed of, assuming that anything so divisive has no appropriate role in public life. When the biggest wrong that can be done in a society is to cause an argument, we are left with a society that vacantly agrees with every new opinion. When the biggest good a government can do is to smooth everything to the same level of truth, we are left with a government that changes policy for each group that shouts louder. When truth is sensible rather than stubborn, as trustworthy as a weatherman, we are left with a prediction for Snowpocalypse that leaves Walmart shelves empty but a reality of 60 degrees and sunny. Society is left to flounder on a foundation of shifting sand.
How did this happen? How did truth get hijacked and associated with the negative? How did truth become linked with religious totalitarianism and Osama bin Laden? How did it become shameful to declare a belief in truth, even simply the idea of truth, regardless of what that truth is? Part of the answer, I’m afraid, comes from us, the Church. We have a history of wielding the truth divisively, of tearing down and even destroying rather than creating and building up. We have used truth as an excuse for starting crusades and we have used truth as an excuse to look at our neighbor with contempt. Truth has become a weapon used to elevate ourselves by bludgeoning down all those we deem as “other”.
This becomes all the more baffling when we remember that Jesus, God in the flesh, claimed to be Truth. If we are condemning our neighbor with what we claim to be truth, perhaps it is not truly Truth we are wielding. Using truth as a magic wand to turn our neighbor into a stepping stone is a natural consequence when we who claim to follow Truth succumb to our world’s version of expedient truth. This is what Trump has done and this is why so many evangelicals support him. Trump is the embodiment of pragmatic truth, and when the Church has forgotten the words and life of Him who claimed to be truth, the Church is easily swayed toward truth that is useful, truth that serves a purpose, truth that turns character into a liability. As much as we might wish it, truth is not in our service, rather we who claim to be Christian are servants of the Truth in the person of Jesus.
If Jesus is, as He claimed to be, the Truth, we are given a truth that is unchanging, yet personal. We are given a truth that produces genuine, enduring character. When we follow Jesus as the Truth, living and speaking as He did, we find that God’s Spirit produces in us a character of love rather than a character of expediency. And when we are possessed of a character of love, we find that we are asked to proclaim this pure, loving truth to our world. More difficult, even, than proclaiming it, we are asked to live it out. Neuhaus tells us that it is now the Church’s task to learn how to assert truth in public “persuasively and winsomely and in a manner that does not violate but strengthens the bonds of civility”. He reminds us that it is our duty to do more than merely tolerate those with whom we disagree but to eagerly engage them, even pursue them, in love.
How? How do we declare and live truth without being divisive and unpleasant, causing strife, conflict, and wars? By remembering grace. Amazing grace. We can live out stubborn truth beautifully by remembering that we ourselves are unable to live up to our own standards and yet we are loved. When we despise or feel superior to anyone, when our goal is, as Trump claims, to “make America great again” by marginalizing the poor and disadvantaged, we derive more power from our own exalted sense of self-righteousness than from God’s grace. Living by this brand of truth that exalts ourselves is what poisons the truth with divisiveness. This is what Trump does: cause divisiveness by playing one group against another, by exalting us by means of demeaning them. Living out Jesus as truth can also be divisive, but a much different sort of divisive. Living out Jesus as truth produces a steady character of loving and caring for others. It is exalting others by humbling ourselves. This can be threatening, and therefore divisive, to those who have already exalted themselves, but it a way of living truth that is desperately needed in our world. It is ageless, this genuine sort of character. It is what the early Christians did when they loved the poor, empowered women, and brought together the races and classes. It is how the early Church overran the Roman Empire when it wasn’t even attempting to gain political power. This is the sort of truth we need. The kind of truth that provides a firm and unchanging foundation for our society. One that will not allow people to helplessly flail but gives them the strength to build a society that lasts, one that cares for all of its members. Tim Keller says that this is the sort of truth that is “a God Who became weak, Who loved and died for the people Who opposed Him, forgiving them.”
Matt Walsh calls Trump a crook and a brat, essentially labeling him as someone who deceives others and who is himself deceived. It seems unbelievable, but this seems to be what many in our country are searching for. Someone like Trump or Clinton who does whatever is advantageous today, someone who manipulates and even creates truth to suit themselves and their supporters. If, instead, you are searching for someone who will lead by serving, someone who will follow Truth rather than create it, well, I’m afraid you probably won’t find that in the upper echelons of our country.
What, then, shall we do? Despair and give up on our country? Better yet by far than any vote you may cast, rather, become that sort of leader yourself in the world of your own influence. After all, presidents have never yet been able to save our country or her people. A country full of people who live lives full of Truth and Love, however? That sort of citizenry has been known to change the world.