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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Lying

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

If there is one moral topic applicable to modern politics, it is that of “lying”. Most Americans assume our politicians are liars while polls suggest Americans are growing increasingly less interested in the honesty of political figures. We assume our politicians are liars and aren’t all that interested in them behaving otherwise. This isn’t new to American politics. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, thought political leaders need to tell lies. Ancient rhetoric intended to persuade the audience of a position, not necessarily tell the truth [1]. Lying is historically part of the political profession and modern Americans, Christians included, are cynical and apathetic about the subject. But Augustine takes a hard line on the matter: “Every lie is surely a sin” [2]. Augustine makes no exception to this.

He does, however, nuance it by suggesting there are degrees of evil and degrees of lying. Every lie is a sin, but not of the same magnitude. The difference is the intention of the liar. “He who willingly lies in order to benefit another does not sin in the same way as he who willingly lies in order to harm another” [3]. Lying is a sin, but it is worse to lie with an evil intent than it is to lie for someone’s benefit. Here, Augustine does not talk about lying to defend a life such as Germans who lied to the government to protect the lies of Jews. It seems clear to me that Augustine would call this a sin, but it is less of a sin than, say, a German lying to entrap a Jew in Nazi Germany. In this particular situation, Augustine seems to present a lose-lose situation. It would be evil to lie to the authorities and a lie to comply with Nazism. Lying to the authorities is a lesser evil. Augustine seems to me to be out of step with the biblical narrative here, specifically the story of the midwives in Exodus 1 who, when ordered by Pharaoh to murder any Israelite baby boys, let them live and lied to Pharaoh, claiming they were not there when the children were born. Yet God is described as being kind to them, providing them with families, and looking with favor on them. Their actions are not treated as a “lesser evil” by God. In such an extreme situation, Augustine is not particularly helpful.

However, in typical politics, Augustine provides a useful distinction. Saying something untrue, but believing it is true, is not lying. “He does not deceive but is deceived” [4]. Modern Americans are so cynical about our politicians, we can be in danger of accusing politicians of lying when they have simply spoken in error. Not every inaccurate comment from a politician is a lie and we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt on those points. It is a lie when the individual intends to deceive. For Augustine, that intent is everything.

The same applies to the reverse. If an individual intends to deceive but ends up speaking accurately, he or she is still lying. Speaking correctly and having correct facts do not invalidate the charge of lying. If an individual intends to lie, they are lying, no matter the accuracy of what they say [5].

Finally, the importance of the subject also determines the significance of the lie. The less important the subject, the less significant is the lie. The worst lie is a lie about who God is and on matters of eternal life. The lies a politician tells pale in comparison to such lies. Their lies can only produce temporal damage while lies about the divine can do ultimate damage to others who, by error, are turned away from the supreme good [6].

Augustine gives a fairly Sunday School approach to the topic of lying. It is wrong, period. However, Augustine’s reminder of our Sunday School lessons forces us to ask, what would it look like if Christians cared about honesty in voting? The integrity and honesty of our leaders in not an incidental matter ranking below the many other issues of justice we have talked about throughout this series. “Is this a man or woman who cares about the truth?” is the first indicator of whether or not they will rule justly. If the answer is “yes”, we have a basis of trust from which to evaluate their policy positions. If the answer is “no”, we cannot expect them to rule justly.

Augustine also moves beyond a Sunday School, “lying is bad” approach. Not all lies are equal. When we vote, we will never find anyone who is beyond lying, including you or me. So Augustine also gives us some criteria to evaluate the significance of the lie. Does the lie produce good or evil? Does the lie protect or damage? Is it about a significant topic or a less important matter? These questions are criteria for which of two liars is more trustworthy than the other. Finally, he also encourages us to give our politicians the benefit of the doubt. Being wrong is not a lie. We should not be quick to accuse our leaders of lying every time they misspeak or get the details wrong. Those are important matters and give us a good idea of how thoughtful a leader might be, but they are not the same thing as lying. Christians should care about the honesty of our politicians and be slow to accuse them of lying.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 254.

[2] Ibid. p. 255.

[3] Ibid. pp. 255-256.

[4] Ibid. p. 255

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. pp. 255-256.

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