An untruth can be so blatantly obvious, so public, and responses to it so bizarre and unbelievable that it earns the “Big Lie” label.
When that happens, it becomes a defining feature of the public conversation, and its crippling effects on commitments to a common good are evident.
Apart from the dynamics that are playing out in response to the current ”big lie,” there are some reminders that its appeal is not limited to its current perpetrators and embracers.
Of course, we have an originator of the narrative that carries the untruth into the arena of public attention.
We also have a goodly number of people in places of public responsibility who embrace and help perpetuate it, along with a fairly high percentage of people who accept it as truth – some of whom are willing to respond aggressively in its defense.
All of this is rather spectacular, and observers tend to speak of it as “unprecedented.” In many respects it is, given its high-level presence in our public life.
Yet, it seems at least a feature of the “big lie” has been around a lot longer than its current manifestation and may not be as unprecedented as we are inclined to think.
People ask, “What would make elected officials, who obviously are in a position to know better, embrace a view that has been demonstrated to be inconsistent with factual reality?”
The answer in various forms is that the realities of political life pressure them to go along with something they know is not true in order to maintain the position they have worked hard to attain.
It is here that the power of a “big lie” has done its work throughout history, in large and small ways, to deceive and mislead humanity in directions that have been less than wholesome.
The large examples are familiar.
Hitler’s big lie of Aryan supremacy led to the disastrous consequences of the Holocaust and the devastation of much of Europe.
America’s big lie of manifest destiny contributed to the abuses of Indigenous peoples and has continued to fuel a kind of nationalism that hampers our ability to function as a global partner on many issues.
The big lie of white supremacy still infects much of our society’s efforts to make justice a reality for all people.
A little refection on the pervasiveness of the big lie revealed three elements of our heritage that affirm how much a part of our human experience its appeal is.
The first is the portrait of human experience in the beginning of Israel’s testimony of the covenant faith.
In Genesis 3, after the terms of living in the garden are set forth, the Tempter suggests that if the humans partake of the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they will know as God knows.
Of course, they were directed not to do that, with the warning that would die if they broke the terms of the nascent covenant.
The Tempter suggests that breaking the covenant is a small price to pay for the extraordinary benefit of knowing as God knows.
You can have what you want now, the Tempter says. All it will cost you is your integrity, and what’s that compared to the benefit? The Big Lie.
The second is the account in Matthew and Luke, describing Jesus’ experience in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry.
He, too, is invited by the Tempter to abandon his calling and commitment for short-term gain – for physical need, for fame, for power. All he has to do is embrace a loyalty to the Great Deceiver, who offers an appealing result in exchange for abandoning his integrity.
Is there a pattern here that suggests a paradigm for human experience?
The third comes from classical literature in the story of Faust, the legendary character of German folklore whose story of selling his soul for wealth and power has been immortalized in several forms.
There are abundant examples of how easy it is to exchange long-term well-being for short-term pleasures and benefits.
The less than honest deal to gain a promotion. The misrepresentation of a product in order to sell it. The padded resume to increase chances for the dream job.
The feature of the big lie that seems pervasive is not the existence of the Tempter, whose heirs seem abundant in all times, but the “marks” of the Tempter’s con-game/mission and the ease of the pull away from integrity and primary commitments with an offer of some kind of short-term benefit – pleasure, profit, being re-elected.
Perhaps the ongoing ethical question is: What is the selling price of integrity these days?
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).