Review
Comment
Politics
4 min read

Truth decay: lying will destroy us

The British way of doing things extends to more than an unwritten constitution. Simon Burton-Jones argues it includes how we lie.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

A Pinnochio figure stands on a window sill beside some net curtains.
Milk Chan on Unsplash.

"Why are things so ***t?"

This was the question veteran journalist Gavin Esler was asked as he walked down a Devon street one day by a member of the public who recognised him. It was a very British kind of question, crudely expressing a common underlying feeling. Esler has set out to answer it in his book: Britain Is Better Than This. It isn’t a pretty picture and will be contested. When a government has been in power for thirteen years, blame for the current state of affairs is hard to refute. There are some who do, but not many these days.  

Gavin Esler’s previous book, How Britain Ends, looked at the demise of the Union, propelled by Brexit. Esler himself was a member of Change UK, so his position as a remainer is well documented. Scotland’s vote to remain contrasted sharply with an English nationalist vote to leave. Northern Ireland’s fragile peace was put greatly at risk by deepening the divide between the island’s north and south. As a political movement, the Conservative and Unionist Party seemed to defy their name. 

Telling fibs in politics is as old as politics, but he and others identify newly organised patterns of lying; untruths being told as a deliberate strategy.

Britain Is Better Than This exposes the lack of a codified constitution as a developing risk. The UK’s deliberately vague and amorphous unwritten constitution has often been a source of its proud exceptionalism. We do it differently because we can, and we pull it off. Esler notes the almost sacred tones in which this is expressed.  It is a mystery, using rarefied, opaque language similar to eucharistic liturgy to inspire reverential awe. But when the constitution is essentially unwritten, commentators rather than judges take precedence as interpreters. And there is elasticity: the constitution is what those with power say it is at any given moment. The Crown, the government and the State seem to be used interchangeably, according to the need. If this has worked in the past, it is because of Britain’s ‘good chap’ theory of government, so called because whatever uncertainty may prevail, decent, well-educated, public-spirited people can be relied upon to make it work. 

Esler’s point is that the cracks are showing, and more people are poking their fingers through the holes to make them bigger. The Queen’s proroguing of Parliament in 2019 at the request of Boris Johnson was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, showing the system can rectify issues, but it also demonstrated the risk of future, unscrupulous leaders exploiting those cracks. Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempted curtailing of judicial power in favour of executive authority has set a model which others may follow. Esler’s case for a written constitution and also for electoral reform to introduce fairer systems of proportional representation are not panaceas and he while he recognises this, he prefers them.   

As a journalist he is on assured ground in the assessment of what the Rand Corporation has termed truth decay: the growing ascendency of the lie in public debate. Telling fibs in politics is as old as politics, but he and others identify newly organised patterns of lying; untruths being told as a deliberate strategy. This is murky territory for the democratic world. Across global, digital media, we disagree more about facts, blur fact and opinion, prefer personal experience to facts and trust historic sources of information less. Esler’s wants to see media literacy taught more effectively, as Nordic countries do. Deep fake technology is only going to make judgments harder.  Courses and syllabuses with a ‘media’ prefix are still considered unserious in some circles, but without this kind of literacy, Britons may become prey for some ugly predators. 

We have an uneasy, open marriage with the truth in public and in private (where research shows we all lie far more than we realise). 

In 2020, the Edelman Trust Barometer put the UK in twenty-seventh place out of twenty-eight OECD nations for trust in democratic institutions; only Russia lay below. Britain’s mythical capacity for ‘muddling through’ is based in part on our ability to ignore bad news until we can do so no longer; kicking the can down the road may be a truer expression. Gavin Esler has done us all a favour by showing what is at stake. The book’s opening question: Why are things so ***t?, however, only takes us so far.  By the end we may know why. What we are able to do about it is the defining question. 

In 1998, Jonathan Freedland’s book Bring Home The Revolution struck a nerve. The UK was transitioning from a tired government to a younger, more energetic one; the tech revolution was taking off, millennial optimism was off the leash. Freedland believed the time was right for the UK to become a republic with a written constitution like the USA. A lot has happened since then, and where Freedland’s book captured the hopefulness of the time, Esler’s feels more like a lament; a cry for a better world in the face of the facts. 

His implicit call for us to live in truth (as the late Czech president Vaclav Havel would put it) carries most conviction. We have an uneasy, open marriage with the truth in public and in private (where research shows we all lie far more than we realise). The traction of ‘my truth’ rather than, more accurately, ‘my story’ may show how close we have come to a precipice.  My truth does not set me free. If we believe the truth sets us free, we also get what David Foster Wallace meant when he observed: 'the truth will set you free, but not until it has finished with you'. Words Christ perhaps left unsaid. Big ideological changes are not afoot in Britain today, but culture is formed of a million daily interactions, where the glue of trust sticks and the power of imitation prevails. Telling porkies when others don’t becomes a tougher gig.  

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.