A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on October 12, 2003

My original title for this sermon was going to be: "Fabrication, Falsehood, and Flat-out Lies." But then, in a moment of benevolence, I thought perhaps I would give George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt, and concede that it might be possible that he really did, and apparently still does, believe that what he represents to the American people is the truth - at least as he sees it. He may be the last person to believe that, but, sadly, I think he still does. Or else, he is in deep denial or unwilling to admit he may have made some mistakes and missteps. The people, and belatedly the press, have pretty much come to the conclusion that many of his statements and policies are based on untruths - whether due to misinformation or misrepresentation we are not quite sure.

There is a subtle difference between outright lies and deceptions. Lying is deliberately presenting information one knows to be false as being true. Deceit, or deception, on the other hand, is more an attempt to trick, bluff, or beguile. It is putting up a false front, dodging or dealing in delusion - to mislead, dupe or fool another person. Deceit is still dealing in untruths, but somehow it is seen as less wrong than pure bold-faced lies. Often, deceit is even considered good - if it is done with the intention of protecting someone's feelings, for example, or putting the best twist on a situation.

To some extent, I suppose we all lie - excuse me, deceive. We exaggerate, we minimize, we avoid confrontation, we spare people's feelings, we protect ourselves, we make excuses, we might even cheat on our income tax. We engage in "little white lies" because we think the truth will cause more damage than a simple, harmless untruth. We indulge in small falsehoods and still think of ourselves as honest people. We are all guilty of rationalizing, or trying to minimize our indiscretions. As Adlai Stevenson once said: "A lie is an abomination unto the Lord...and a very present help in trouble."

As Bonhoeffer said, character matters. A truth told by an untruthful person could be worse than a lie told by a truthful person. Context matters also. What, for example, is the truthful response to a murderer who shows up at your door in search of your friend whom he intends to murder and asks if your friend is there? Or, as Miss Manners recently advised a reader who asked what she should tell a friend whose cooking was just awful - nearly inedible - when the friend asked if the food was good? Miss Manners said if the friend was just a friend cooking for her family and friends, say it was wonderful and eat what you could. If, however, she was planning to open a restaurant and cook for others, it would be best to tell her the truth. Context matters.

There is a difference, however, between such self-serving, personal prevarication and the kind of deception that the administration has been using to get what it wants on a great many fronts, from war in Iraq to rolling back environmental standards, to getting massive tax cuts which have left us in dire economic straits, to cutting essential services and education, to stealing our basic civil rights - all in the name of fighting terrorism.

Cyrus Bass wrote in 1948: "In America today too many little minds occupy too many high offices. This condition will have to be drastically changed. Not until many big minds occupy many high offices will we be able to achieve the goal of World order, peace, and security. Nothing is wrong with little minds. They may be as fine and as worthwhile as the most brilliant, but they belong where they will be most effective - in little jobs. Little minds cannot cope with big problems... We measure "bigness" not by how kind or well-liked a person is, or how " respectable" a family life he may lead. We measure bigness of mind not by "reputation," but by ability, and we measure ability by achievement." Today, our country is being run by people with too little minds. People who cannot see beyond a narrow agenda to understand the long-term consequences of what they do. Moreover, to a large extent, politics has become institutionalized insincerity. Politicians do whatever it takes to get elected. Before they ever assume office, they are conditioned to prevarication as natural and normal and acceptable. We should not be too surprised, then, when they continue to be less than fully forthright while in office.

People apparently like George W. Bush, and they think because he is likable he is also capable and culpable. There seems to be great surprise and reluctance to acknowledge his inveterate lying. He was given the benefit of the doubt far longer than was customary, or healthy for our nation.

One reason it was hard to accept his deception is because he is supposedly such a devout Christian. He makes much of his devotion to God in both his personal and political lives, and invokes God in all his speeches, including those on Iraq and war. Yet other good Christians, including the Pope and leaders of all other major religious groups and denominations, see things, especially on the preemptive war, quite differently. But to hear Bush tell it, God was squarely on his side in the "just war" against Saddam Hussein. He has skillfully blended his religious beliefs and his political decisions on all issues. His attitude is: "God is with me, so you should be also." The American people find it hard to believe that an administration led by a president who pipes the message of Christianity so thoroughly could do bad things. After all, isn't lying practically a sin? How could such a pious man be sinful?

It amazes me, to some extent, that people would be so surprised that George W. would end up lying to us - for it is quite clear by now that is exactly what happened before the war, and continues on many fronts. After all, his father was an inveterate liar. Although Clinton has the reputation of being the lying president, Bush's lies, like his son's, were far more serious and caused more harm to the nation. In case you have forgotten, here is a recap of some of senior Bush's bigger lies. I'm not even concerned with his "read my lips" promise not to raise taxes, or his reversal on abortion, or even his born-again conversion that turned him from someone who had ridiculed Reagonomics as "economic madness" and "voodoo economics" to a faithful and fervent advocate of supply-side borrow-and-spend conservatism. These were simply examples of political expediency, to be expected from a politician. Although it was a little troubling when he tried to deny he had ever said it!

More troublesome were such things as promising, as the "environmental president," that there would be no net loss to wetlands, and then redefining wetland so that one-third were lost - and then bragging that this was a "significant step" for the protection of wetlands. Does this sound familiar - like father, like son? Or how about his condemnation of the murders at Tiananmen Square and his promise that all diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. would be cut off, and then secretly sending the national security advisor and assistant secretary of state to Beijing a month later. When caught, he simply denied ever having made such a statement, and claimed the press misunderstood him.

And does anyone believe that his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the supreme court was because he was "absolutely the best-qualified candidate," and his race was "not a factor." Or the fact that daddy Bush supported sanctions against Iraq following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, said they were "working remarkably well," continued to make the case for sanctions over the next three months, and then suddenly did a complete turnaround and said, "I have not been one who thought that sanctions alone would bring Saddam to his senses." Either he once favored sanctions and said he didn't, or he didn't favor them and said he did. Either way, he lied. And that lie was very expensive for the American people and the world. Just like the present war in Iraq, also based on lies, continues to be an expensive miscalculation. Like father, like son.

And there were other biggies in the first Bush administration- Iran Contra and Irangate. When the Iran Contra scandal broke, Bush denied having any knowledge of the diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the contras, or the connection with that and the release of U.S. hostages. He said he was so far out of the loop he wasn't even aware that arms were being sold to Iran at all. Guess what? He knew. He was in the loop, in fact he was the kingpin. Everything he said about his involvement was a lie.

And what about Iraq? Like we are seeing now, the first Bush's most glittering achievement became tarnished. It was more than just a "foreign policy disaster rescued by a brilliant military performance" as the former head of the National Security Agency put it. It was a story of failed policies, selling of dual-use technology to Iraq that Bush was warned might be used in Saddam's nuclear buildup, coddling of Saddam Hussein and mixed messages about U.S. reaction to a possible invasion of Kuwait, and extending credits to Saddam that gave him the money to buy the weapons technology he later used against U.S. forces. (This, by the way, is why Dubya is so sure Saddam has weapons of mass destruction - his daddy gave them to Saddam.)

All that is bad enough, but it got worse when Bush tried to block an investigation into the affair, falsified documents to obscure the diplomatic and military help to Iraq, and engaged in an administrative cover-up. Iraqgate became an extremely complicated criminal case that, we learned later, involved improper conduct at the White House. Yet, as Bush was running for reelection he declared, "There has not been one single scintilla of evidence that there is any U.S. technology involved." He was right - there was not a single scintilla of evidence, there was a great deal of evidence, and Bush knew it when he made that statement.

For all of that, however, it was his successor, Bill Clinton, who has the reputation as the liar, because he tried to deflect investigation into his personal sex life. Part of his problem was that he couldn't tell a whopper with a straight face. But there is a difference between the countless ways we blunder through life and try to protect ourselves and make life more tolerable through minor deception, and those big lies that are told with the intention to mislead. There is also a big difference between lies to protect personal indiscretions and lies designed to justify a war which affects thousands of lives and even the reputation of our nation.

Perhaps what is most disturbing to me, however, is that most people don't seem to care whether we are being told the truth. There is an expectation that politicians lie - so what is new? There are all kinds of rationalizations and alternative explanations about why we went to war in Iraq, for example, so what does it matter if the reasons we were given before the war turn out to be false? We can find other good reasons for doing what we did, so why does it matter if there actually were not weapons of mass destruction, or a program to build a nuclear bomb, or an immediate threat to America, or ties to Al Qaeda? We still did a good thing, even if for the wrong reasons!

I think it does matter. Call me unpatriotic, but I think dishonesty matters. Here I quote from Sister Joan Chittister in an article in the National Catholic Reporter, on May 29. "It matters that the infrastructures of a foreign nation that couldn't defend itself against us has been destroyed on the grounds that it was a military threat for the world. It matters that it was destroyed by us under a new doctrine of "pre-emptive war" when there apparently was nothing worth pre-empting. It surely matters to the families of those who went to war to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction and will never come home, or come home badly wounded. It matters to families in the United States whose life support programs were ended, whose medical insurance ran out, whose food stamps were cut off, whose schools are suffering from severe cuts, whose day care programs were eliminated - I could go on and on - so that we could spend money on Iraq.

"It matters to the people in Baghdad whose water supply is still fetid, whose electricity is gone, whose streets are unsafe, whose government buildings and all their records have been destroyed, whose cultural heritage and social system has been looted and whose cities teem with anti-American protests. It matters that the people we say we "liberated" do not feel liberated in the midst of lawlessness, destruction and suffering our so-called liberation created.

"It matters to the United Nations whose integrity was impugned, whose authority was denied, whose inspection teams were belittled and undermined. It matters to the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the World, both now and for decades to come. And surely it matters to the integrity of this nation whether or not its intelligence gathering agencies have an real intelligence or not before we launch a military armada on its say-so." (It would matter even more if we discover that the intelligence was good, but was distorted, ignored, or manipulated by an administration hell-bent on going to war whether there was good reason or not.)

"And it should matter whether or not our government is either incompetent and didn't know what they were doing or were dishonest and refused to say. The unspoken truth is that either as a people we were misled, or we were lied to about the real reason for this war. Either we made a huge - and unforgivable mistake - an arrogant or ignorant mistake, or we are swaggering around the world like a blind giant, flailing in all directions while the rest of the world watches in horror or in ridicule.

"If Bill Clinton's sex life matters, surely a president's use of global force against some of the weakest people in the world matters. If a president's word in a court of law about a private indiscretion matters, surely a president's word to the community of nations and the security of millions of people matters...

"Of what are we really capable as a nation if the considered judgment of politicians and people around the world means nothing to us as a people? What is the depth of the American soul if we can allow destruction to be done in our name and the name of "liberation" and never even demand an accounting of its costs, both personal and public, when it is over?...

"What may count most, however, is that we may well be the ones Proverbs warns when it reminds us: "Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks the truth." The point is clear: If the people speak and the king doesn't listen, there is something wrong with the king. If the king acts precipitously and the people say nothing, something is wrong with the people. It may be time for us to realize that in a country that prides itself on being democratic, we are our government. And the rest of the world is figuring that out very quickly.

"From where I stand, that matters."

By rewarding politicians who lie by reelecting them, we all contribute to the breakdown of society. A dishonest society cannot survive. St. Augustine defined all lies as sins because they misused God's gift of speech. In a better world than this one, people would agree and act accordingly. But no matter how ethical we may try to be, we will still embellish, hedge, and omit to lubricate the daily machinery of living. But there is a world of difference between telling functional lies and living a lie.

Martin Buber once said, "The lie is the spirit committing treason against itself." Our acceptance of lies becomes a cultural cancer that eventually shrouds and reorders reality until moral garbage becomes as invisible to us as water is to a fish.

How much more can we stand before we stand up and do something about it? When will we declare our basic right to be able to trust our leaders? When will we stop turning over our personal power and responsibility to liars? Bill Moyers once said, "We almost demand this phony war of words to protect us from reality." Well, it is time to change the message. It is time to demand the truth. It is time to face reality, for it will, in the end, come to haunt us no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Better to face it up front, so we know how to deal with it.