The Pope, The President, and the Eighth Commandment

Not long ago an article in one of the more conservative Catholic newspapers reminded its readers of something we all know, but too often forget in the heat of argument: “The Eighth Commandment is clear: Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The immediate examples of the offense he described were misrepresentations of Pope Francis’s involvement in Argentina’s Dirty War. While getting the facts of the Pope’s biography wrong is a serious matter, this writer’s audience is in little danger of breaking the commandment in that particular way. American Catholics who can be described as conservatives are not much tempted to spread lies about the Pope. In my experience, however, they are often willing to give in to the temptation to deal in lies about others. And the victim of the sin of calumny is likely to be the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.

I am not, of course, saying that there is no reason to oppose Mr. Obama and his policies. I myself have filled his mailbox with pleas that he end his support for abortion, that he not require employers—and especially religious employers—to provide contraceptives, some of which may be abortifacient in effect, that while ensuring that all people are treated fairly
, he not redefine the institution of marriage. (I have also asked that he stop supporting the death penalty and end the drone attacks that so often kill innocent bystanders.) Some of his comments over the years—including those about people who “cling” to guns and religion—suggest that he would prefer that religion in the public sphere influence only our sentiments, not our actions. In the last election, I did not vote for him.

That sort of opposition, however, is based on the positions the President actually holds on the issues. If we met, we could compare our positions, explain where they differed, and try to show each other where we were wrong. Since these issues are so grave, it would be a grief to me if I could not change the President’s mind, just as it is a grief to me that I and those like me have not yet been able to win the public debate on these issues. I would still oppose him, but I would know that I had treated him as I want to be treated, as an erring brother, not an enemy.

When I attend many Catholic gatherings, however, I too often hear the Eighth Commandment broken and the clear teaching of the
Catechism ignored. To put it simply, people repeat lies about the President. Sometimes they have not bothered to check the facts, and sometimes they simply do not care: they seem to hate Mr. Obama so much that it does not even matter if things they say about him are true.

The slander comes in many forms, but a few of the lies are notable both for their prevalence and
for the absence of any evidence for them. The first of these is, of course, the suggestion that Mr. Obama is not a natural born American citizen and therefore is not legitimately the President of the United States. To believe that wild story, one would have to believe in a conspiracy that dated back to the early 1960’s, that included both the hospitals and newspapers of Honolulu, that has since encompassed the government of the State of Hawaii and its Republican governor, and that, despite their various oaths to support and defend the Constitution, has been connived at by Senator McCain, Governor Romney, the secretaries of state and other election officials of all the states in both 2008 and 2012, and all the members of both houses of Congress who counted the ballots in 2009 and 2011. Can anyone honestly believe that no one in that long list would try to do his duty? Or that every reputable news organization is wrong, and not one has tried to scoop its competition by telling the truth? The answer is clearly, “No.” But at Catholic gatherings I still hear comments about the President being a Kenyan.

The second great lie is that Mr. Obama is a Muslim. I hope that if he were Muslim, Catholics would not oppose him for that reason. Muslim theology may be closer to Catholic theology than Mormon theology is, and many Catholics recently supported a member of the LDS Church for the presidency. The fact is, however, that he is not. He has been a practicing Christian throughout his adult life. He often attends church services. He was, for a long time affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the very denomination to which my own Protestant cousins belong—and none of their neighbors in Nebraska have ever thought them to be secretly Muslim. Mr. Obama’s mother, his father, and his stepfather were either hostile to all religion or at best tepid toward it. The schools he attended included two in Indonesia, first one that reflected the faith of that country’s Muslim majority and then one that was Roman Catholic. Back in the United States, he graduated from a school founded for the children of Christian missionaries in Hawaii. There is no evidence he has ever described himself as a Muslim. Any honest evaluation of the evidence would lead Catholics to recognize Mr. Obama as one of our “separated brethren,” that is, a fellow Christian. Like many Christians he does not accept everything we hold to be part of the Catholic faith, and we might pray that God would enlighten him. We have no excuse, however, to say he is lying about his faith. To see the video clips some Catholics spread, you would think that a person becomes Muslim by learning to say “hello” in Arabic or by noting the basic historical fact that the Arabs preserved parts of Classical culture that Europe has lost. When the President
speaks to people in their own language or says something positive about their culture, he is simply being gracious, not hinting that he has accepted Islam. The recent popes have displayed the same good manners when visiting Arab lands.

Beyond the lies about the President’s birth and ancestry, I also too often hear falsehoods about his policies. It is perfectly just to oppose any leader’s proposals and actions; it is false witness to misrepresent what those proposals and actions have been. The most egregious example of this sort of false witness is the repeated talk about “Death Panels.” No version of the President’s health plan ever included panels that would pass on who was worthy of treatment and who would be left to die. It did at one point propose allowing Medicare to cover the time a physician takes to discuss “end-of-life” decisions with patients in advance. (Having such a conversation is, by the way, a good idea: after mine, I left legal instructions that direct my physicians not to initiate or terminate any medical procedure if doing so would not be in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church.) The lies about the President’s death panels, together with variations involving the virtual elimination of all but palliative care for the elderly are still repeated by those who have not bothered to verify their facts.

There are many legitimate grounds on which to oppose the health care plan and the President’s other policies. There is never any excuse for telling lies—or for passing them on. Catholics used to be taught a word for this sin: calumny. The
Catechism of the Catholic Church still lists several offenses against the Eight Commandment: it is wrong assume another person is wicked without good reason (“rash judgment”) or to truthfully disclose a person’s failings without good reason (“detraction”). Calumny is the still more serious offense of harming the reputation of another by spreading lies (2476). Before we repeat something about another person, even the President, we should all ask, “It’s a good story, but is it calumny?” It would be a blessing if the computer could be programed to ask that question whenever we hit “forward” after reading a juicy e-mail.

Finally, if those who make these sorts of attacks on President Obama cannot be swayed by the Commandments or the
Catechism, perhaps they can be swayed by prudence and history. Lies are excellent tools, to begin with, but those who rely on them often find that they fail in the long run. Let’s take an example from France. As the 19th century drew to a close, the Church in France was, all things considered, in amazingly good shape. Just a hundred years earlier, all traces of Christianity were being cleared from French culture, from the Madonnas in the churches to the seven-day week. But after several revolutions and kingdoms and empires, the church had regained its place in society, along with much of its property and its moral authority. Some Catholics still felt embattled, however, and unthinkingly joined forces with a single faction in politics (the right wing) and with the military. When those groups stooped to telling lies, the Catholics did the same. One lie—the claim that a Jewish artillery officer named Dreyfus was a foreign spy—split the nation. Many Catholics became militant anti-Dreyfusards and acted as if supporting him meant opposing the Church. After years of struggle, Dreyfus was vindicated. The Church that had either tolerated or abetted those who smeared him, however, suffered an eclipse from which it has still not recovered. The anti-clerical elements in French culture reasserted their sway, and the church completely lost its influential role in culture and education. Moderates—even Catholics—did not want their society shaped by an institution that had contempt for the truth. Doubtless many good Catholics who passed on anti-Dreyfusard pamphlets were not bitter anti-Semites, just as there may be no tinge of racism in slurs against the President. But their tolerance for calumny itself made the church impotent for years to come. Catholics who deal in lies about the President rather than opposing him forcefully and honestly, may very well do the same thing.

Article referred to: “Anatomy of a Lie: The Assault on Pope Francis’ Reputation,” Register, 03/30/2013. (I have silently corrected “Thou shall” to “Thou shalt.” “You shall” would also be an option.)