We were in Colorado Springs. Stopping at a red light, we stared at the sticker prominently displayed on the car bumper in front of us. It asked this simple question, “What would happen if everyone told the truth?” I looked to my right and said to my wife, “The political establishment in the United States of America would dissolve instantly.” We laughed uneasily.
The Ninth Commandment is clear. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Matthew Henry describes the prohibition this way. It forbids, “Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and [in] any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor.” Equivocating means using ambiguous language to conceal the truth. Hearing politicians of any stripe give straightforward unambiguous answers to simple questions in pointed interviews is a rarity.
What has been called “political spin” rules the day. Political activists and political campaigns look to what we spin doctors. These are people that put a particular ‘spin’ on what has been said—often, with little concern for its truth. The real concern is whether or not people believe the spin. Sometimes the spin is what is most important. Is there an intention to deceive? Ambiguous and equivocal language leads us to believe so.
Reporting becomes a form of propaganda, right or left. It is biased, manipulative and deceptive. Such spin can be a real problem for democracy. It masks transparency and provides the public with distorted information. When political figures, no matter the stripe, purposely distort information in order to deceive, who are they deceiving? Another question is pertinent. Who is their neighbor? We are! As constituents of various politicians, we are their neighbors. When politicians engage in political spin, they are bearing false witness and violate the Ninth Commandment. And when we buy into this political spin and propagate it as though it were the unadulterated truth, we too violate the Ninth Commandment.
Matthew Henry says the Ninth Commandment also forbids, “Speaking unjustly against our neighbor, to the prejudice of his reputation . . . . ” In other words, God condemns ad hominem arguments, that is, arguments against the person. You attack the messenger to undermine the message. You denigrate the person to cast doubt on his or her motives in order to invalidate the argument. Using such attacks are an effective public speaking ploy. Although this may be the case, such attacks seek to prejudice a person’s reputation. Such attacks, therefore, violate the Ninth Commandment.
In this case, the neighbor is the political opponent. But political opponents are not the only ones involved in the sin. There are those who applaud the personal attack and support the ad hominem argument. There are also those who hold the opposing position and are painted with the same broad brush. It is easy to point the finger but we are all the worse for the use of such arguments. We are all embroiled in the sin.
True, not every politician engages in political spin. But equivocations and spin are so prevalent that truth is at a premium. The Evil One, the “father of lies” (John 8:44) sits with a sly grin on his face and an evil glint in his eye; he gladly listens for every equivocation and every effort at spin. What is the outcome? Such equivocations and spin place us in opposition to the “God of truth” (Psalm 31:5). Personal repentance is in order. National repentance is in order. We must seek the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26) to guide us into “all the truth” (John 16:13) and thus learn to “speak truth each one with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25).