© 2016 Robert Osburn
The September 10, 2016 cover story in one of the world’s most widely-read magazines, the Economist, is about “post-truth politics.” The article argues that the main contenders in our torturous 2016 US presidential campaign have stunningly sacrificed truth with reckless abandon. I highly recommend the article, but with a major caveat: The writers fail to satisfactorily answer the question: “How did we get to the place where truth is at best a literary doormat for those bent on power and conquest?” The answer to this question is the real story that will linger long after the presidency is decided in November.
What is the post-truth world, according to the Economist? First, it is a world where truth is secondary, no longer primary. Many of the claims made by our major presidential candidates do not match reality (the real test of truth). Secondly, in the post-truth world “feelings trump facts more freely and with less resistance than used to be the case.” Our protest marches seem like reckless ventilators for anger and frustration. We need emotional baths in chilled water after reading many horrid and bizarre social media posts. College students, who, by the way, are utilizing campus counseling services at rates never seen before, demand trigger warnings so they can be emotionally safe. Many of our churches, especially our evangelical churches, froth with emotion in our music, our videos, and our slovenly conduct at worship. The late Phillip Rieff was right. Our age proves “the triumph of the therapeutic.”
Has Western society entered a civilizational roach motel where truth goes to dine and then die on an emotion-based meal of sarcasm, cynicism, anger, and tragedy?
The Economist believes there are two causes for our post-truth politics (a global phenomenon of sorts). First, trust in institutions (e.g., churches, Congress, schools, science, etc.) has collapsed. Starting with the assault on authority in the fabled 60s, we don’t trust anybody: scientists, politicians, even clergypersons. Secondly, the internet has made it possible for us to divide up into a million little subgroups that spin conspiracy theories about everyone else. Since no contrary voices enter our little chat rooms or Facebook pages, we tell chest-thumping lies to each other. No one tells us to cease and desist.
Yes, antiauthoritarianism and the internet have conspired to eviscerate truth in our politics. But, the Economist completely missed the fundamental underlying reason why the roach motel is filling up: The postmodern worldview seeping into our minds, whether through music, film, or at the feet of our favorite university professors.
The postmodern portrait of reality, or worldview, is all the rage in university departments of humanities and social sciences. It claims that people who assert the truth of their worldview are really filling their miserable palms with power and more power. When the Christian evangelizes, she is robbing you of your freedom! She imprisons you in a dogma that drains away your freedom in a fever swamp of religious emotion! Truth is a masquerade for injustice! Be suspicious, be very suspicious!
For postmoderns, truth is dispensable. Rage supplants understanding and farce replaces fact, as long as the goal is rectifying injustice. Our presidential candidates were in their 20s and 30s when postmodernism sprouted. Now, they claim to be invincible warriors of justice for either the “marginalized” (Clinton) or the “deplorables” (Trump).
By contrast, truth is indispensable to Christianity. Truth shapes the hero who plunges forward to save souls from injustice, whether slavery, sex trafficking, corruption, or whatever evil. Truth exposes lies that sustain crimes and injustice. Truth must correspond to reality, and, if it doesn’t, we run from liars, cheats, and bloviating religious leaders.
So, how did our society dance away from a truth-centered worldview to a postmodern world that produces post-truth politicians? The story goes back to the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The first people to eject Christianity out the back door of academia were “modernists” who, often in the name of science, rejected God but not the truth criterion that they learned from Christianity. George Marsden brilliantly exposed their Achilles heel in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (2014). Having rejected God, they had no rational foundation to pursue truth. Thus, like many of today’s university administrators, they buckled before 60s student radicals who demanded universities become centers for human liberation. Thus was born, half a century ago, postmodernism, a post-truth worldview.
Yes, antiauthoritarianism and technology play into this story, but not the formative role that the Economist claims. They deliver the poison and they may enhance its potency, but they are not the poison. The poison is a set of bad, but believable ideas located in the postmodern worldview.
The post-truth train has been a long time coming, but, for those with ears to hear, the far-off whistle could be heard as early as the late 60s, if not before. A traveling sideshow of chaos, emotion, and confusion, postmodernism has left us with two very unsatisfactory presidential candidates for whom truth is of little consequence, but, more than that, a decimated, cynical culture.
What can be done? While it is a much more complicated endeavor than I can outline here, our universities must create a curriculum built around the pursuit of fundamental questions about meaning, morality, and human purpose. Connor Grubaugh of First Things (and a recent University of California-Berkeley graduate) has written brilliantly of his longing for just this. Meanwhile, our churches must restore pulpits that not only treasure the biblical text and its message for our souls and damaged psyches. They must also declare the Bible’s message for the reconstitution of civilization. When our academic and religious institutions re-discover truth and its transformational potency, our politics will restore itself.
Postmodernists have made truth and freedom enemies, claiming instead that when we dispense with truth we get liberation. Our presidential candidates, knowingly or unknowingly, channel this message. By contrast, the Bible declares that“you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Christianity aligns truth with human freedom and flourishing, and until we clearly drive home that message, post-truth politics and a jaded society is our American future.