Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Ron Suskind reports on a presidential aide who derisively challenged the media and its “reality-based community,” by insisting that the “judicious study of discernable reality” is “not the way the world really works anymore.” The presidential advisor continued: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Suskind’s article was published in October 2004 – two weeks before the presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry! It is cited in the first chapter of a book written in 2006 by journalist and film critic Frank Rich entitled The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth that documents the Bush presidency “from 9/11 to [Hurricane] Katrina.” Of his book’s intent, Rich says: “What follows is one reality-based observer’s study – judicious, I hope – of how those fictional realities were created and how they came undone when actual reality, whether in Iraq or at home, became just too blatant to be ignored.”
Some 225 pages later, with chapters entitled “Mission Accomplished,” “We found the weapons of mass destruction” and “Slam Dunk” (anyone recall those phrases?), Rich concludes of that national era: “Once definable distinctions between truth and fiction were blurred more than ever before, as ‘reality’ was redefined in news and prime-time entertainment alike. The Bush White House certainly did not invent this culture. It has been years in the making and it is bipartisan.”
No argument there. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton entered the impeachment cycle for lying, impure and simple. Yet Rich saw the Bush era as enabled by a new reality-forming culture that “was fully on-line and was brilliant at exploiting it to serve its own selfish reality-remaking ends.”
“Today, in the land of the free and the home of the tribal, ‘discernable truth’ seems tenuous at best.”
From his journalistic vantage point 13 years ago, Rich wondered: “History tells us that politics is cyclical in America, and the Bush cycle may well be in its last throes. But the culture in which it thrived still rides high, waiting to be exploited by another master manipulator from either political party if Americans don’t start to take it back.”
Rich’s dire warnings paled with the election of Donald Trump, an American president for whom the appellation “another master manipulator” is a spectacular understatement. Neither Rich nor any of the rest of us imagined a presidency whose daily intent is to create its own reality, ceaseless prevarications promulgated as facts through tweets, rallies and international phone conversations.
As of mid-October, the Washington Post’s fact checker database had documented 13,435 “false or misleading claims” disseminated by the president of the United States in the first 993 days of his administration. If Rich is correct, has Trump turned “alternative reality” from a preexisting condition into a new political/cultural constant?
Hence our national dilemma. Today, in the land of the free and the home of the tribal, “discernable truth” seems tenuous at best. At worst, truth-telling, a once noble ethic, now twitters on the edge of cultural, governmental, and perhaps ecclesiastical, oblivion. We are, all of us, locked collectively in a truth-crisis so perilous that distinguishing “fictional” from “actual realities” has become a 24/7 confrontation across every segment of our national life, churches included.
Are we so culturally callous that we still think we can “know the truth” (John 8:32) even if we don’t tell the truth, a moral sellout that will yet “set us free”? Does our sense of and advocacy for truth-believing and truth-telling depend on the cable news caucus we follow, the online sites we google, the political ideologies we espouse, the Facebook coalition we friend, the conspiracy theories we defend and the faith communities we attend (if we attend faith communities at all)?
And what of the Church at a time when “reality-based community” seems up for grabs? Can churches help preserve, protect and defend “discernable reality” in ourselves, our congregations and perhaps in our society? If so, will anyone listen?
Case in point: findings of a 2019 survey recently reported by the Pew Research Center suggest:
- The church’s articulation of truth (whether conservative or liberal) seems increasingly less viable. “Roughly four-in-ten U.S. adults – including a majority of Christians – lament what they perceive as religion’s declining influence on American society.”
- While many Americans “see religious organizations as forces for good,” only a “slim majority” (55%) say religious communities do “more good than harm” and “one-in-five say they do more harm than good.” What in the church’s 21st-century witness makes that majority “slim”?
- While many Americans affirm religious communities for “strengthening morality and bringing people together,” an ever-growing number choose not to assist those communities in doing so. Why?
- Almost two-thirds of those surveyed “say churches and other religious institutions should stay out of politics … while 36% say they should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions.” (Three-quarters also believe “churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections.”) Does that mean partisan politics or politics in general? To be silent when truth is “on the scaffold” is its own falsehood.
How might Christians respond to this truth-is-up-for-grabs-moment in American culture, politics and faith traditions? Here’s my work-in-progress list, never definitive, but unashamedly passionate:
Let’s recommit our faith communities and ourselves to discovering and advocating for “discernable reality” throughout American culture, authenticating media assertions and other “authorities” as best they can.
Let’s encourage each other to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) when it comes to evaluating political methods and manipulations in state or church.
“Are we so culturally callous that we still think we can ‘know the truth’ (John 8:32) even if we don’t tell the truth, a moral sellout that will yet ‘set us free’?”
Let’s refuse to identify any elected official from any political party with a specific biblical figure or type (OK, President-Sunday school teacher-Habitat builder Jimmy Carter excepted).
Let’s allow politicians to rise or fall, fail or succeed, based on their own character or lack thereof, without being blessed or tainted by biblical false equivalency.
For God’s sake, let’s not allow ourselves to attribute or blame anyone’s election according to “the will of God.”
Instead, let’s take responsibility for the people we elect, encouraging them to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” as best they can.
Finally, let’s relentlessly cultivate our own consciences to seek the truth, and, as best we can, to tell the truth in love. Let that be our witness, whether anyone’s listening or not.