Should Politicians Tell Lies?

I thought I would share with you one of my essays, written for the Ethics course. I have slightly altered it, and it has no bibliography, but this is the sort of essay that I write for my course:

In what sense is truth a social and political virtue? Explain your answer from a Christian ethical perspective and use illustrations from contemporary society and politics.

This essay will define the biblical concept of truth, and consider how it is a political virtue. This will then be applied to a social and political setting. Political groups that have an opposing view of truth will be examined, and the outcomes of this considered, thus showing that usually society suffers when truth is excluded from politics; though there are exceptions.

Truth is complex, and the meaning varies between people. It might be defined as speaking factually. There are instances when ‘speaking factually’ will conflict with the commandment to love. For example, when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and in passing people asked, ‘How are you?’ it would have been inappropriate to dump unexpected information, and was instead appropriate to answer ‘Okay,’ even though this was not factually true. A more extreme example would be when people lived and spoke falsely in order to protect Jews hiding from Nazis.[1] There are also instances when people do not want to know the truth themselves, such as in medical prognosis, and it is loving to respect this. There are instances in the Bible when God did not appear to be speaking the truth.[2] There is also an instance when Jesus appears to lie,[3] which is unlikely given that he is described as being, ‘full of grace and truth,’[4] and himself states that he is, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.’[5] ‘Truth’ must therefore be more complex than the simple speaking of factually accurate information.

In the Hebrew Bible אמת [6]  is the word used for ‘truth.’ It combines a sense of faithfulness, of lack of deception and of honesty. This was been called ‘thick truth’ by Kempson in a lecture, who said it epitomises more than the speaking of facts.[7] Gushee describes it thus: ‘truth is not simply something that is believed or spoken, but instead is a character quality, a way of being.’[8] He continues the definition by saying it is proved by actions. This essay will use this definition; therefore in the social and political arena, it is the ethos of truth and faithfulness, rather than simply whether or not something is factual, that will be considered.

Plato thought that legislators (the equivalent of politicians in his time) should be wise and rational.[9] Taking the definition of truth above, it could be argued that a legislator might be wise whilst also dishonest, suggesting that Plato did not consider truth to be essential in politics. Aristotle’s views are closer to thinking that truth is necessary for politicians, as he viewed ethics, morals and politics to be intertwined. His understanding was that: ‘Good actions produce good habits; good habits and moral training create good dispositions; virtue names the ways good habits become inscribed on a person’s character.’[10] As he considered the state to be a ‘moral project’ for the benefit of the community, the truthfulness of its leaders would implicitly be part of this. Kant was more specific, believing in categorical, universal, principles. Hence, his view was that, ‘lying is never permissible, even to save a person’s life’,[11] which implies a narrow definition of truth. Whilst Plato, Aristotle and Kant are part of history, their teaching survives today, and I suggest that contemporary society still bases some of their expectations on these models.

Our politicians today do not always fit the model of truth above. Boris Johnson, during his election campaign, was accused of visiting a hospital to raise support, whilst his party had left them underfunded. It was during a news broadcast, and he protested that there were ‘no cameras’ with him. The television camera then turned, showing a bank of photographers.[12] Yet this appeared to have little impact on his election, people still voted for him, even knowing that he lied. People today sometimes vote according to which political party will deliver the policies they want, rather than according to the virtue of the politicians.

Another example is when Donald Trump was elected as president, despite his alleged propensity for mistruth.[13] McGranahan writes that politicians have always lied, but Trump’s lies were in excess of any other, and he often spoke ‘alternative truth.’ Again, the electorate knew this before the election, yet many still voted for him. Trump stood strongly against abortion, and I suggest that many voters voted according to this single policy, deciding that ‘truth’ was less important. In this instance, ‘truth’ was less a political virtue than delivering certain policies. (Though of course, some people believed Trump, and thought the allegation itself untrue.)

Sometimes when the lies of governments are revealed (such as when secret documents become unsealed) the population condones the lie. An example would be when Churchill moved model vehicles around the coast, hoping to deceive the enemy that the planned D-day attack would be in a different place.[14] This was not acting in ‘truth’ as per the above definition, as the intention was to deceive. Yet the perceived ‘greater good’ of defeating the enemy outweighed the lie. Thus was the consequential ethic of ‘outcome mattered more than the process.’[15] (A pacifist view would suggest that nothing justifies war, and therefore lies used to support war are immoral. However, I suggest that those with a Jewish heritage, who would not be alive had the allies not invaded Europe, mostly believe a greater good was served.)


Given these examples, one might question whether truth is necessary within politics. Hays quotes Niebuhr as saying: ‘Christianity really had no social ethic until it appropriated the Stoic ethic.’[16] This suggests that Christian truth has no place in wider society and politics. However, there are dangers when truth is withheld. The rise of fascism under Mosley in the 1930s used lies, in the form of ‘anti-semitic conspiracy theory’ [sic].[17] By lying, twisting the truth and spreading propaganda against the Jews and other immigrants, the fascists gained support for their party. People wanted to belong, they wanted an enemy to blame for their troubles, and were keen to believe that life had been better in the past.[18] People who challenged the false information were themselves called liars, and it became difficult to know what was true and what was false. Society became unstable, and hatred in the form of racism began to grow. When people do not know what to believe, when truth is hidden or ridiculed, there is space for evil regimes to grow.

Society relies on laws, and laws rely on truth. An example of this is the method used for deciding justice in a court of law. Witnesses give evidence, a jury decides whether the accused is guilty. The truthfulness of witnesses is essential for justice. A witness is asked to swear they will tell the truth, which echoes the Ten Commandments.[19] Whilst it could be argued that Jesus spoke against swearing in court,[20] I agree with the view that the meaning behind his words was aimed at the custom of swearing unnecessarily to undermine truth,[21] and the ‘thick truth’ is unrelated to the practise of swearing in a court today.

I would therefore suggest that truth is a social and political virtue. As has been shown by the rise of fascism, when populations cannot rely on politicians for truth, a country might be led towards morally abhorrent behaviours. Whilst there are situations when the withholding of facts is wise, this does not contradict the wider understanding of truth as a virtue of honesty and faithfulness. Hence truth is a political virtue. The upholding of law depends on the truth being spoken in court, and if a society cannot rely on law (and by default, truth) then there is no solid structure on which to build. Hence truth is a social virtue.

If today, we voted for leaders based on their truthful character, their אמת, rather than their ability to make good speeches or deliver the policies we desire, then I believe countries would be stronger and ethical standards would be upheld.


Thanks for reading.

I hope you have a good (truthful) week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading Why not sign up to follow my blog?

[1] Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2004). This book shows how lying was necessary to protect those in hiding.

[2] Gen 2:17. God tells the man that on the very day he eats of the fruit he will die. As understood by the man (physical death) this was untrue.

[3] John 7:8 compared with John 7:10. As Jesus did know the future/his mission (John 8) it is unlikely he did not know that he was going to attend the feast.

[4] John 1:14.

[5] John 14:6.

     [6] אמת is translated as ‘reliability, dependability, trustworthiness, truth’ by David Clines. English Bibles tend to use ‘truth’ as the translation in most contexts, with the other words being examples of the kind of truth being discussed. Ed. David Clines, The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield, Phoenix Press, 2009) p. 26.

[7] Emily Kempson, Postgraduate Seminars: The nature of truth in Christian theological thinking, 7/12/2022

[8] David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 2003) p. 296.

[9] Samuel Wells, Ben Quash and Rebekah Eklund, Introducing Christian Ethics, (Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, 2017) p. 66.

[10] Wells, Quash, Eckland, p. 67.

[11] Wells, Quash, Eckland, p. 136.

[12] I witnessed this incident. There is a related report online: <> [Accessed 8/12/2022]

[13] For example, see the article by Carole McGranahan for the American Ethnologist journal in 2017< > [Accessed 8/12/2022]

[14] Imperial War Museum article (unverified externally) accessed online.,being%20made%20for%20the%20invasion. [Accessed 8/12/2022]

[15] Quotation by Philip McCormack used in 235 Ethics lecture on 6/12/2022.

[16] Niebuhr 1979 (1935), p.91 quoted by Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, (NY, Harper Collins, 1996), p. 216.

[17] Richard C. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, (London, Bloomsbury, 1998) p.12.

[18] Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works (London, Random House, 2020) Chapters 1 – 6.

[19] Deut. 5:20.

[20] Mt. 5:37.

[21] Gushee, p. 292.

2 thoughts on “Should Politicians Tell Lies?

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