It’s a New Year Again in America
Truth-Telling as Christian Superpower
Some Bearings readers will remember (or may have read about) the 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign commercial to which my title refers, “Stronger, Better, Prouder,” or more popularly, “Morning in America.”
The ad used images rendered in pastel hues and sweeping orchestral tones in emotionally evocative major chords to create a nostalgic, optimistic dreamscape of an America in which jobs were plentiful, inflation was down, patriotic pride swelled in the hearts of ordinary folk, and all across the land hope was unrestrained. Against this visual and sonic story, the script was composed of a spare, but memorable, 122 words that, like a more recent political slogan, strategically employed the adverb “again,” in this case to focus the imagination on a restored national vitality:
It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly two thousand families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?
Well, as with even the most positive of political advertisements, the most poetic of national mythologies, the ad was riddled with deceptions, falsehoods, prevarications, misstatements, untruths—oh, let’s go ahead and call them what they were: lies.
The year “Stronger, Better, Prouder” ran, unemployment was at 7.3%—down from 8.5% when the Reagan tax cuts passed in in 1981, but a notch above the 7.2% during the recession of Jimmy Carter’s final year in office. Still, to be fair, the job situation was way better by the time “Morning Again in America” dawned than the 10.8% unemployment had climbed to after Reagan’s tax plan “trickled down” to ordinary Americans. Throw in a ballooning deficit that the tax giveaway and increased military spending pumped ever more air into, and, well, it’s clear that political lies are hardly something that, skilled disciple of deception that he clearly is, we can wholly lay at the feet of the current president. Lies and the lying liars who tell them are all too much a part of American political DNA. The thing that seems different now from back in the mistily remembered moments of 1980s America is that there was at least a general consensus that lying was a bad thing—a practice that liars at the very least ought to do on the downlow, ought to try to minimize, distract from, or obscure.
Sure, Nixon was a liar. Agnew was a liar. But Reagan? Bush I? Bush II? They, if the testimonials to the recently passed George H.W. Bush are any indication, maintained what appears to have been a decency felt deeply enough that they strained to prevaricate with some grace, to shield the public from their numerous falsehoods, and certainly to eschew any public boasting about having gotten one over on a political rival or the American public in general. Along with serial philanderers John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, they sustained a robust commitment to the idea of political honor, to dignity in one’s comportment as a public figure, to some sort of moral baseline for national life.
As incoming senator and former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney put it in a much-discussed Washington Post op-ed this week, “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels.’ A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.” [My emphasis.]
It’s hardly breaking news to note that those days are gone.
It’s a new year again in America.
Today, more migrant children are held without their parents in federal “migrant detention facilities” than ever in our country’s history. When we see images of the numbers marked in indelible ink on their wrists, it is hard not to think “camps.” Two such children have died in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol contractors, in response to which administration supporters circulate lies about child deaths under the previous administration.
For Christians, the story of the blessed child born to a migrant family still fresh in our minds and warm in our hearts, the corruption of compassion and decency marked on the bodies of these children must surely be wrenching.
It’s a new year again in America.
A rollback of environmental regulations over the past two years is already having an outsized impact on the most vulnerable in our nation and the wider world. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that we have but 12 years to cut carbon emissions—shown in December to be increasing after having leveled off in recent years—if we have any hope of mitigating the dramatic climate effects such as droughts, fires, catastrophic storms that have devastated beings across the United States and around the globe. In response, supporters of the administration circulate lies about the financial motivations of climate scientists.
I could go on, of course, with headline after depressing headline, lie upon lie. The Wall. The Government Shutdown. The Trade Wars. The Stock Market Slide. The ‘Fake News.’ The Casual Misogyny. The Unrepentant Racism. The Unbridled Corruption.
But it’s a new year again in America, and I want to suggest that communities of faith have a particularly urgent role in calling us all back to “our better angels” at a time when it seems unlikely that our elected representatives—even the ones we may have called upon to challenge the current order—will be able or willing to do so.
Why? Because they, too, live and breathe in a toxic political ecosystem that insists that even those driven significantly by principle articulate their challenges within the cultural vernacular shaped as much by “reality” television as by policy insight or moral character. In this mediatized, consumer culture lexicon, our attention is drawn to drama and conflict, even when we disagree with policies and are appalled by the values on display.
But the Church is inherently countercultural. Indeed, this is largely why religious affiliation continues to decline. The way we connect, the way we gather, the way we communicate is profoundly counter to the dominant cultural mode. There’s a lot of bad news in that, but I’m coming to think that at this particular moment in America this may be our super power. It may just be that this is precisely the moment in which the gathering of people of faith around concern for the most vulnerable, concern for the planet, concern for the cultivation of a common good can offer new energy for resistance to what it is, not an overstatement to name as evil—an evil grounded fundamentally in lies.
It’s a new year again in America, and it is no more likely this year that our government leaders will be the truthtellers, will be prophets of integrity and justice. Today, yes, fewer people will gather together to worship the God of truth. But those who do have at least a mustard seed’s worth of power to shape the character of the nation by moving beyond their own spiritual comfort to more robust and public expressions of the spiritual strength and moral integrity that grounds Christian faith.
It’s a new year again in America.
What would it look like, what might we do together as communities of faith, hope, and love, to actively model truth as more than an abstract concept but as the basis of a common life that makes us prouder and stronger and, Lord help us, better than we have been as a nation for the last two years?