If you haven’t been in hiding over the last few weeks, you will be aware that Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. How do I feel about this? Relieved that Donald Trump is no longer in charge.
Trump’s legacy will be far reaching but not, I believe, in a positive way. His election in 2016 was in part because of – and in part a cause of – the era of ‘fake news’ and a new intensity in the culture wars. In 2021 people trust those in authority less than ever before.
Expected not to believe anymore
That decline isn’t all down to the former president of course, but it feels a very real development to me. Are our leaders less trustworthy than they used to be? Maybe, but the decline in trust is as much down to those doing the trusting (or not) as it is to those who are being trusted (…or not).
You see, in the good old days, politicians would make reckless manifesto promises that they subsequently could not keep. You could argue that this was a more innocent form of dishonesty...Today I see a more sinister trend: politicians expect half the people not to believe them anyway, whatever they say, so what does it matter if they tell a lie? And maybe the other half of the population will get behind them anyway and believe the lie?
Thousands attempted an insurrection on Capitol Hill because they swallowed the lie whole. Trump has been a master of statements that are blatantly and obviously untrue, and can be demonstrated as such. He simply has such a disregard for the truth that he does not care.
If Trump wants something to be true, he will say that it is so. It’s a bit like a child continuing to deny that she has eaten the last chocolate biscuit despite being shown in a mirror the evidence all over her face. Truth has become something you can choose to disregard if you don’t like it.
It’s happening here too
It is easy to say this about Trump because we are on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet we have succumbed to the same tendencies too. I could name British politicians who take the same approach to truth as Trump. Just say something outrageous, who cares if it’s true? It will inflame one side of the debate and in so doing it will entertain and energise your side. Well done! You ‘stuck it to them’.
Facts stop mattering; no longer do we make up our minds on the basis of what we believe, instead we make conclusions on the basis of who we believe…no matter what they say.
No longer do we make up our minds on the basis of what we believe
In short Britain has also become a society with a trust problem. A lack of trust problem. They say that truth is the first casualty of war, well perhaps truth is the chief casualty of the culture war? As Christians who are commanded to value the truth, we have a responsibility not to accept or to spread fake news – and to counter it where we have the tools to do so.
We need to remind ourselves that someone may say something that we passionately disagree with, without them being a liar. Similarly, someone we generally approve of may say something that presses all our buttons, but it might not actually be true. It is easy to fall into both of those traps (I have), but it is ungodly and a poor witness when we do so. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16) means that we should think twice and pray hard before we retweet or share on Facebook.
Careless talk costs lives, and sharing things that aren’t true – or that we cannot be sure are true – or undermining statements that are true, could literally kill someone. Again, we saw that with the riots on Capitol Hill when people believed a lie that the US elections were rigged (they really weren’t). And we see it in the UK when people believe that Covid is fake, that the vaccine is dangerous and that the lockdown simply doesn’t apply to them.
Our hope is in the most amazing truth that has ever been revealed: that God came to earth to die in our place so that we can spend eternity with him. One day Trump and Covid will be ancient history. But, in the meantime, in response to the sure and certain hope that we have in Christ, we should be living faithfully for him. And that means living and tweeting truthfully. It also means loving those who do get caught up in fake news, knowing that, but for God’s grace, it could be us.
Tim Farron is the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. He is also the host of ‘A Mucky Business’ on Premier Christian Radio, which is also available as a podcast.
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