One of the common worries I hear from religious commentators about nonreligious people is the absence of a solid, reliable, unchanging moral compass. Lacking that...why, folks could make up the rules as they go along.
I've written about this nonsense before ("The red herring of relativism," July 8, 2007), so I won't go too deep into the silly idea that moral relativism follows from the absence of religious guidance. I'm more struck at the moment by just how quickly the "solid, reliable, unchanging moral compass" of religion is cast aside when it's inconvenient.
The Ninth Commandment, for example -- which prohibits lying, or "bearing false witness" -- is taking quite a hit at the moment among the most fervently religious of my fellow Americans as the presidential campaign heads into the final weeks.
Some will note that all politicians lie, as if that makes my outrage moot. Even if that's true, it seems clear to me that they don't do it with equal abandon. Jimmy Carter, who found it difficult to lie, declared the country had fallen into a "malaise" and was booted for his honesty. Ronald Reagan followed up by declaring "Morning in America," then ushered in the most corrupt and scandal-ridden Administration in memory.
Secular, un-compassed me is furious when my own party lies or cynically stretches the truth, which is little different. About a decade ago, the Democrats in my then-home state of Minnesota ran a television ad with a little girl struggling to read a sentence on a blackboard: "Republicans in the state legislature cut 32 million dollars from education funding." A tiny asterisk led to the following at the bottom of the screen:
*(Cuts forced by Governor's memo of 03/08/99.)
It flashed by too fast and small to read, which I'm sure was an oversight.
The cuts had been forced by our governor, Jesse Ventura, an Independent. I dashed off an angry note to my state party, which thanked me for (and ignored) my petty plea for integrity.
Barack Obama has offered at least one wincing, bald-faced lie in this campaign when he claimed that his comment
"it’s not surprising then that [some voters] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations"
was really just an acknowledgment that in tough times, people turn to "the things they can count on," traditional values that "endure." Even without the obvious disproof of this (anti-immigrant sentiment is an enduring value?), it was obvious to all but those blinded by bias on the left that he had meant something much less flattering. The original statement, though impolitic, was true; the cover-up was false, and that diminished him in my eyes.
The half-hearted, embarrassed reaction from much of the left at the time shows that liberals tend to wince when their candidates lie so shamefully. At the very least, we tend not to line up behind him or her and repeat the obvious lie.
See where I'm headed, do ya?
How many supporters of Sarah Palin's candidacy are wincing with embarrassment at the astonishing, breathtaking stream of lies (both half and whole) coming from her and her surrogates in the past ten days? The Bridge to Nowhere ("thanks but no thanks") lie is just one of a dozen or more towering fabrications that have again raised serious questions about not just our collective gullibility but also the willingness of the Right to bear false witness whenever it suits the needs of the moment.
There's a term for this -- situational ethics. It also goes by the name of moral relativism. And the fact that it displays itself so dazzlingly in conservative Christian evangelicals -- those whose God devoted fully ten percent of his ethical instruction manual to forbidding it -- should give any sane person pause before yammering on about the rock solid reliability of that unchanging moral compass.
When Charles Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine last week, any thinking observer could see that she had no idea what he meant. She paused awkwardly, then asked if he meant "[Bush's] general worldview." To cover themselves and perpetuate the larger lie that Palin is prepared for the national stage, the McCain campaign engineered a whopper: Palin knew the Bush Doctrine so well that she wasn't sure which of its many facets Gibson wanted her to address.
And a shriek of needles on paper was heard across the land, and countless polygraphs now sit sweating in straitjackets, their needles quivering fearfully, humming "Give Me Some Truth" loudly to themselves for fear they will hear the Republicans say...it...again.
When (Roman Catholic) Sean Hannity interviews (Assemblies of God) Sarah ..., there can be little doubt what they will do to their beloved Commandment. He will ask her (no doubt with "respect and deference") about the Bush Doctrine, and she will faithfully parrot the lines she has learned since Thursday about the Doctrine's many, many facets, pretending to have known this all along, locking the inconvenient truth away with a click as decisive as the syllables of "Ahmadinejad" she had so faithfully learned the week before.
And afterward, all talk will be about whether she hit a triple, a home run, or a ground rule double, measured not against a standard of truth, nor what it takes to be Vice-President of the U.S., but against "expectations" and the dial-in-your-vote-for-the-next-American-Idol perceptions of three hundred million marionettes.
Maybe we can't ask for an administration that doesn't lie. I don't know. But is it too much to hope for one that feels some semblance of shame when they do it?