White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently defended President Trump’s new policy of separating children from their parents at the border, claiming that “the law” requires this procedure. As the Washington Post explained in a couple of carefully-researched articles, Sanders’ claim was incorrect, and her and other Administration claims about the policy earned them a “Four Pinnochios” rating, the Post’s highest rating for dissembling.
A year and a half into the Donald Trump presidency (well, before that too), we’ve come to expect routine deception from the President—as well as, to use the more technical term from Philosophy, “bullshit.” But what about dissembling from the White House spokesperson, a known evangelical Christian whose Southern Baptist preacher father Mike Huckabee advised her “to be honest” as the press secretary—or other Christians serving in the Trump Administration? Could a Christian lie?
Obviously, Christians can lie—like other human beings. But sometimes they do so in specific ways grounded in faith. Many fundamentalists’ faith practices include the ability to “harmonize” uncomfortable facts, and the history of creationism gives us some clues as to how it works.
As the Post’s articles explained, part of the answer lay in the careful parsing of words. It’s true, for instance, that there’s no new “law” requiring family separation. But there is a new “zero-tolerance” policy (now possibly rescinded) of prosecuting adults for crossing the border. That prosecution can, by Administration discretion about how to apply and prosecute the law, lead to family separation. Thus, “the law” did exist under the Obama administration—even if the choice of prosecution has changed.
This kind of word play is how one can deceive and yet not quite lie. There is in fact a long history of fundamentalist Christian Bible interpretation practices that generated the requisite skill for this kind of language parsing. Called “harmonization,” it’s a method for acculturating facts to a requisite already-accepted truth. When anthropologist Susan Harding studied the fundamentalist congregation of Christian Right leader Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, for instance, she remarked on this carefully cultivated interpretive practice.
Fundamentalist language, Harding noted, was “productive.” When Falwell or other church leaders occasionally experienced scandals, their followers ‘read’ the situation like they had learned to read the Bible: by “harmonizing contradictions and infelicities according to interpretive conventions that presume, and thus reveal, God’s design.” It’s through harmonization that their Christian supporters could “convert ‘inconsistencies’ into meaningful insights.”
So when Sanders claimed, in response to a question about why the government was separating children from their parents, that “it’s the law. And that’s what the law states,” she was transforming the question about policy choices into an answer about legislation. This is a mode of deception without having to intentionally tell what one recognizes as a literal lie. It was a way to bring a new fact (the changed policy) into harmony with a perceived required belief (there was no change in “the law”).
The question of lying often rests on intentionality. And it’s here that the history of creationism in the United States gives us some good examples of how deceiving others might not be understood by some people of faith to be lying, if it has first been accompanied by harmonizing self-deception.
In fundamentalist Christian theology, “Young Earth” creationism is the idea that the evolution of different species never happened, and that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, as in the Garden of Eden story in the Bible. According to some such accounts, dinosaur fossils were left behind when dinosaurs were wiped out during Noah’s Flood, which likewise caused geological formations like the Grand Canyon. “Creation science” is the adoption of a pseudo-scientific apparatus that looks like science to outsiders—it’s got graphs, chemical explanations, footnotes, and discussions of fossils—to call into question evolution, and to argue for the truth of a literal interpretation of Genesis’s remarkable creation myth. This often involves “harmonization” not at the word level but at the evidence or concept level: thus, the Grand Canyon becomes evidence, not of millions of years of the erosion of rock layers, but of the Biblical story of Noah several thousand years ago.
In Finding Darwin’s God, the (non-fundamentalist) Christian cell biologist Kenneth Miller writes of debating well-known creation scientist Henry Morris. Morris was one of the most famous Young Earth creationists, having co-authored with John C. Whitcomb The Genesis Flood (1961), a book, according to Harding, “steeped in scientific and scholarly trappings.” Miller, accepting biological evolution like virtually all professional scientists today, writes of a private conversation he had with Morris one morning in the hotel cafeteria they both were staying at following their public debate the evening before.
Miller questioned Morris with the aim of getting him to admit in private that this was all a charade, and that Morris was knowingly perpetrating a fraud on the public. Miller expected a “charlatan,” but discovered someone who sincerely expects eventual vindication, that science will one day arrive at the truths biblical revelation already holds. The creation scientist’s sincerity, that is, included a prior commitment, as he expresses it in The Genesis Flood, that wherever scientific conclusions seem in conflict with biblical statements, the science must be wrong in as yet unrecognized ways.
Is Morris lying? Not really, since he really believes evolutionary science is wrong. He isn’t really or obviously insincere or duplicitous. Does he use his considerable scientific literacy disingenuously, to muddy the evidence and cast doubt on relatively accepted science? Yes—but he believes, with apparent sincerity, that this science is wrong and that his views are true. It’s not a lie if one has already convinced oneself of the truth of one’s stance.
Perhaps a different answer to this question of whether Christians can lie, more in the direction of duplicity, comes with the record of the Intelligent Design movement, an attempt to update creation science after the Supreme Court ruled in its 1987 Edwards decision that classrooms could not teach creation science beside evolution, because “creation science” had the actual intent of advancing a religious perspective. Intelligent Design purported to show that there were examples of “irreducible complexity” that could not be accounted for by the evolutionary forces of random mutation and natural selection. Thus, an unknown ‘Intelligent Designer’ must have intervened at key moments in complex biological systems like the blood-clotting cascade or the bacterial flagellum to supplement the natural process of evolution.
Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross offer a devastating portrait of Intelligent Design in Creationism’s Trojan Horse, in which they see Intelligent Design much more cynically, with its purveyors knowingly perpetrating a fraudulent conservative think-tank funded public relations campaign on a mostly scientifically naïve public. Intelligent Design textbooks and curricula were adopted by some school boards in the 1990s and 2000s, and the theory was challenged in court in the famous Kitzmiller v Dover (2004) decision. During the course of the trial, it was revealed that the purveyors of ID continued to recycle their old arguments without addressing the critiques that had been publicly and exhaustively mounted against them—suggesting a certain kind of disingenuousness with regard to truth.
In one instance, when put on the witness stand at the Dover trial, ID theorist Michael Behe admitted that his theory of the irreducible complexity of bacterial flagella (the little whip-like ‘motors’ that propel some bacteria) was testable in a laboratory experiment that might take about two years, or ten thousand bacteria generations, to see if something like a flagellum might begin to evolve in conditions that gave advantages to more mobile organisms. But Behe argued that such an experiment “would not be fruitful.” And as with other supposed examples of irreducible complexity (e.g., the immune system or the blood-clotting cascade), scientific research showing they were in fact reducible has not led him to revise his ideas.
Is Behe lying? Again, the question of intentionality involved in that question is difficult for us to answer, since we have no access to his internal mental state. But the disinterest in pursuing scientific experiments that might either prove or disprove his theory suggests not just unselfconscious self-deception, but, Forrest and Gross contend, fairly active disingenuousness in terms of convincing others.
He may, like Morris, believe that science will eventually ‘catch up’ to Biblical revelation. But to refuse to pursue research that could test his hypothesis puts him a bit closer to the knowing deception end of the spectrum, even though Behe himself is probably a sincere believer. One of the other facts that came out during the Dover trial—that the ID textbook Of Pandas and People was originally a creation science manuscript, and that after the 1987 Edwards decision the authors merely swapped out words like “creation” and “creator” for “intelligent design” and “designer”—also appears designed to deceive.
The problem of expertise
Answering the question “Can Christians Lie?” is complex partly because it’s entangled with the human mental processes of harmonization, self-deception and sincerity. These are difficult questions that perhaps only literary fiction, with its power to explore interior worlds, can properly address. We can wonder about the aspect of hypocrisy when seeking truth, or Sartrean “bad faith” which preserves an element of (prior) self-deception, but these are not the only questions to ask.
To make matters even more complicated, the question of Christian Right deception is entangled with the co-incident development of an alternate epistemology and information-entertainment system among American conservatives. As David Roberts has detailed in a couple of extremely important articles, one of which Bradley Onishi recently referenced here on RD, the United States is facing an epistemic crisis marked by a “tribal epistemology” in the form of the rise of an alternate conservative information-entertainment industry. Beginning in the 1990s with the rise of talk radio and Fox News, it now extends to propaganda organizations like Sinclair media, Breitbart, Infowars and others.
This asymmetrical information polarization is mirrored in the two parties, one of which has now become, as the bipartisan team Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put it, “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
To put this another way, the fundamentalist Christian rejection of academic expertise—in the form of rejecting evolution, mainstream Bible scholarship, and now even climate change—was paralleled by a non-fundamentalist conservative rejection of expertise, as when, back in 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich dissolved the Office of Technology Assessment, a non-partisan office that supplied information and analysis to Congress. By “working the refs,” many American conservatives have redefined neutral, professional expertise—academic, bureaucratic, and now journalistic—as partisan “fake news,” entrenching the (mis)information bubble of many on the Right. The dominance of this “tribal epistemology” among conservatives, including the Christian Right, may have made them more vulnerable to the deceptive fake news that circulated during the 2016 election.
In summary, the problem of conservative Christian lying is complicated by other developments such as the asymmetrical polarization in US politics today, as well as the development of extensive propaganda organs among US conservatives. Is Sarah Sanders lying? My sense is that she self-consciously deploys word play and harmonizes facts in a manner reminiscent of fundamentalist creation scientists. She does so in a manner that will be faithfully upheld and reported by the alternate information-entertainment propaganda network of American conservatives, against a hostile “liberal media.” And she believes her false statements are ultimately in the service of a greater good—to Make America Great Again—a larger truth.
We are all like Sanders and other conservative white evangelicals insofar as we all have confirmation bias, making it difficult for us to accept evidence contrary to what we already believe, and are too willing to uncritically accept ideas we already like. In this way, we are all prone to self-deception. But the history and faith practices of white evangelicals offer an additional set of tools of belief—harmonization, cultivated self-deception, dissembling for the greater good—and an additional horizon of “tribal epistemology” and skepticism toward mainstream, neutral expertise. These white evangelicals voted in favor of Donald Trump by 81%. Perhaps this somewhat unusual alliance is illuminated by the answer to the question, “Can Christians Lie?”