Truth-telling seems to be in short supply these days in political discourse. Fact-checking groups are having a field day as they seek to uncover “truth” in the assertions of those who seek political office. Some of the assertions are found to be simply false. It is more common to uncover the subtle telling of partial truths meant to distort or misrepresent the positions of political opponents. In either case, truth-telling is sacrificed for the sake of political advantage.

As a person who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, I am called to exemplify a better way, that of “speaking the truth” (Ephesians 4:15) in all my interactions with others, political or otherwise.

My recent reading of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, written by the late Christopher Hitchens, uncovered an ample supply of truths, falsehoods, and partial truths that distort or misrepresent the nature of religious faith.

On the side of truth, Hitchens is absolutely correct when he points to some of the atrocities perpetrated on humans in the name of God, such as the Crusades, or the more recent carnage in Belfast, Ireland, where he “interviewed people whose relatives and friends had been kidnapped and killed or tortured by rival religious death squads, often for no other reason than membership of another confession” (p. 18). Persons who profess commitment to religious faith should never lose sight of these sad truths that Hitchens cites about the destruction wrought by some religious persons or groups.

On the side of falsehood, Hitchens is wrong when he makes some universal assertions, such as in the sub-title of his book: “Religion Poisons Everything” (italics mine). One had better be careful when making assertions about “everything,” since such an assertion can be conclusively refuted by citing just one counter-example. A monumental refutation of the assertion that religion poisons “everything” is provided by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and others in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s whose motivation for seeking justice and equality for peoples of all races was deeply informed by their Christian beliefs.

Of course sub-titles are usually chosen to sell books, so Hitchens may well have been “exaggerating for effect.” But, this book contains other statements that are simply false: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago” (p. 7); “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic …” (p. 47 – italics mine). Once again, the universal claim of “necessity” is false. To be sure, there are religious believers for whom the findings of science are problematic. But that is not true for me.

This latter example is an illustration of what I find most distressing in Hitchens’ narrative: the many assertions he makes about religious faith or religious believers that contain “partial truths”, but that distort or misrepresent the “whole truth.”  I will note two more examples. 

Hitchens notes, accurately, that religion has been a “source of hatred and conflict” (p. 255). But religion has also been the motivation for much that has been noble and praiseworthy, as in the Civil Rights movement previously noted. He also asserts that “The three great monotheisms teach people to think of “Life itself [as] a poor thing; an interval in which to prepare for the hereafter or the coming – or second coming – of the Messiah” (pp. 73-74). To be sure, there are religious people who fit that description. But that partial truth doesn’t describe me. I embrace life, in the here and now.

Hitchens’ most troublesome partial truth is his view of the “faith” that is held by religious believers. He seems to equate faith with “blind belief” (p. 249) for which one cannot present “reasons.” This assertion is contrary to the essence of my faith as a Christian, which most fundamentally refers to my commitment to faithfully following Jesus. And my commitment to follow Jesus does not preclude my having good reasons for such commitment, reasons that I believe can be stated in terms of my Christian perspective on life, the world, and my place in that world making the most sense of my world of experience. 

It is Hitchens’ inadequate view of the meaning of “faith” that leads him to further assert that “faith is helping to choke free inquiry” (p. 137). Once again, Hitchens does capture a partial truth, for there are religious believers for whom faith is a blind belief that is the “enemy of … inquiry” (p. 229). But that description does not fit me.

Here then is the problem with the many partial truths that are sprinkled thoughout Hitchens’ narrative: When a partial truth is presented as the whole truth, it is a “conversation stopper.” But when it is acknowledged as a partial truth, it opens up the possibility of further conversation intended to arrive at a better grasp of the whole truth. 

By erroneously presenting a partial truth as the whole truth, Hitchens closes the door on the possibility of ongoing conversation in search of a broader truth. And that door is locked shut by his penchant for name-calling when he disagrees with someone. Starting with the more modest examples and working our way up (or is it down), he asserts that the British evangelist Malcolm Muggeridge was “silly” (p. 145); those involved with the intelligent design movement are “boobies” (p. 269); the late Jerry Falwell was a “fraud” (p. 290); “Sir Isaac Newton … was a spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind” (p. 65); and “Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus” (p. 64).  

Name-calling is not a good way to start a conversation. A much better way is to begin the conversation by listening to someone who disagrees with you, trying to empathetically understand the reasons that person has for his/her views; then expressing your contrary views, and your reasons for your views, in a gracious non-coercive manner that invites ongoing conversation; and then engaging the other in respectful conversation about your differences with the goal of attaining a better grasp of the “whole truth” (uncovering what Michael King has called “mutual treasures” in a book that King and I edited titled Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse). 

This better way to start a conversation is an elaboration of the remainder of the exhortation from Ephesians 4:15: “Speaking the truth in love” (italics mine), since providing a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement, and then respectfully engaging that person in conversation about your disagreements is a deep expression of what it means to love that person, to which Jesus calls me and all others who claim to be his followers. 

It is my hope that “speaking the truth in love” will be modeled in the “Alternative Political Conversation” (APC) eCircle that will be launched on this web site on February 1. In stark contrast to the hyper-partisan, often vitriolic political discourse that you will be exposed to by most of the mainstream media up until Election Day 2012, we will present an alternative discourse in which six Christians who are astute political observers situating themselves all along the political spectrum, from “far left” to “far right,” will post position papers every 3 or so weeks on pre-announced public policy issues (e.g., the Federal budget deficit, immigration, abortion), after which they will respond to each other’s postings and interested readers will be given the opportunity to submit responses. Rather than being “conversation stoppers,” the postings from our six regular commentators will be “conversation starters,” expressed in ways that respect those who disagree about their respective glimpses of the truth regarding important public policy issues. You are invited to join that conversation. 

My prayer is that come Election Day 2012, we will be able to look back on the record of this APC conversation and point to marvelous exemplifications of “speaking the truth in love.”