Recently, a judge ordered Oregon residents Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay $135,000 in damages after ruling against them in an anti-discrimination case involving their Sweet Cakes bakery. Numerous Christian writers, from Russell Moore to Denny Burk to Douglas Wilson, have upheld this case as a paragon of anti-Christian persecution, arguing that simply saying “No” to a lesbian couple’s request for a wedding cake is what got the Kleins in so much trouble.
But as Libby Anne, a pseudonymous blogger for Love Joy Feminism on Patheos, points out, it’s not quite so simple. The Kleins engaged in publicity-mongering behavior, drawing media attention to the lesbian couple who filed the complaint. In fact, in the process of garnering publicity, they posted the address of the couple online, leading to threats against the pair and putting their custody of their foster children in potential jeopardy. The damages received by the couple in the resolution of the lawsuit were in response to the emotional harm caused by this behavior, in addition to the original discrimination.
Still, the evangelical propaganda machine ignores these facts, because they contradict the “Militant Gays Hate Good, Bible-Believing Christians” narrative. Indeed, despite a supposed commitment to the truth and to honesty in their own Christian tradition, conservative evangelicals seem ready and willing to engage in propagandistic techniques if it means they might achieve the “right” political ends. From abortion clinics being required to give medically inaccurate information to poorly conducted studies on the efficacy of same-sex parenting, evangelicals seem to have no problem bending the truth to push a right-wing, anti-gay, anti-woman agenda.
And this isn’t a new phenomenon.
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When I was in high school, my youth group took a trip to visit the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, an abstinence-only advocacy group headquartered in my hometown. We had speakers come into our Wednesday night meetings before, and this field trip gave us the chance to see their facilities—the Clearinghouse and the attached crisis pregnancy center—up close. We were snowed over with statistics about how abstinence is effective, rhetoric about how we need to take our schools back for God, and paper after paper of supposedly reliable scientific research on the harmful effects of abortion, such as “abortion trauma syndrome.” I used these papers and this information repeatedly throughout my time as a pro-life, anti-sex ed crusader in high school.
I was a skilled debater, a solid researcher, and someone who spent hours reading articles about national politics. But it never occurred to me to think that I was possibly being lied to by the authority I trusted the most—the church.
And then I started reading from our non-sanctioned sources. I read work from actual abortion providers, studies from the Guttmacher institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research about family life and behavior, and, most importantly, the stories of women who had gotten abortions themselves. And I realized I, along with many of my generation, had been lied to. We hadn’t simply missed the truth—we’d been taught to distrust and ignore anything that contradicted our narrative of people who get abortions as loose women who hated babies.
And worse, we’d been believing information that was patently false. In researching for my book, Damaged Goods, I read a lot of the literature published by the Abstinence Clearinghouse, including a policy primer for parents who want to become politically active for the cause in their towns. This guide, Abstinence 101, starts off by conflating the success rate of abstinence as a pregnancy prevention method with the success rate of abstinence-only education, which is far sketchier. These sleight-of-hand tactics are not new and they are not done of ignorance. It’s a deliberate conflation of statistics fed to an audience ready to accept anything, as long as it comes from the source they’re taught to trust.
This circle of propaganda results in massive numbers of conservatives voting for certain laws, for particular politicians, and against their best interests because of what they’ve been told to believe. The debate and the arguments become more and more intractable because of the sheer amount of misinformation that exists surrounding controversies. For example, explanations of the actual ruling against the Kleins’ Sweet Cakes bakery generally fall on ears that refuse to hear the facts, instead insisting on perpetuating a persecution narrative that fits more neatly into the evangelical vision of themselves. All this propaganda serves to convince evangelicals that they are under attack from terrible liberals and that they have to defend themselves against the world—which has real consequences for these evangelicals and for those negatively affected by the policies they’re pushing.
The Bible is a complex text, which is why we even have varying kinds of Christians in the first place. If the Bible were as simple as so many Christians claim it is, it would be fairly easy to come to agreements about what is said, what is translated, and what it means for us as humans created by God. But because things are not simple and because each different church has different ways of reading the Bible, this book has been used to justify numerous things we now find horrific. Worse, the blame for those horrific things is frequently explained away as a part of humanity’s “sin nature,” not actual misinterpretations of the text.
One thing is unmistakable, however: Lying is explicitly forbidden by the Ten Commandments. It’s a Christian virtue to be honest and forthright. But even in the Bible, these same Christians look at some stories and praise their lies because they reach a righteous end.
Growing up, my evangelical pastor was particularly fond of the story of Rahab the Prostitute. Rahab was a woman who hid Joshua and his men and then lied when the soldiers who were after them showed up. It’s your classic scenario: “Where’d they go?” “I think they went that way!” (This story can be found in Joshua 2). Even the writer of the book of Hebrews praises Rahab as one of the saints of God—Rahab, a prostitute, a single woman, and a liar. These features make her, in the evangelical world, the opposite of a winning personality.
But here’s the rub: the evangelical standard allows lying in special circumstances if it achieves God’s ends. It is one of the sins that is more flexible in the evangelical world, unlike say, the “sin” of being gay. Any other form of deception is immediately sinful. Rahab is righteous, many Christians argue, because her work was pivotal in turning around a great battle.
Modern-day liars are taken in much the same light. If Lila Rose and her Live Action News—and, more recently, the Center for Medical Progress—have to distort and deceptively edit videos of abortion providers to win people to the anti-choice side, then they are like the saints of old because they are doing God’s work. Even God’s laws about lying can be bent if they are made to serve God’s plans.
The problem here is two-fold. Evangelicals are so hoodwinked by the propagandistic techniques of their leaders that they often don’t even realize they are being fed—and therefore repeating—outright lies. And this lack of self-realization makes arguing with an evangelical anti-choicer downright impossible. Traditional appeals to logic, to empathy, to basic science fail because of this intricate system of hypocritical propaganda. It is as though conservative evangelicals are speaking an entirely different language, and the only way to reach them is to speak to them within their own worldly construct, not in the world of logical appeals. There is a convinced certainty in evangelicals’ minds about the Truth, and the only way to challenge that certainty is to refuse to play the game altogether.
We don’t yell back at the protesters. We don’t spend hours debating them on their terms. We tell our stories, we support patients in need, and we continue to show up to vote and urge our congresspeople to work for reproductive rights. We change the rules of engagement and deny them the certainty of their position by continuing to share the experiences of people for whom abortion, reproductive rights, and basic health care have been life-changing.
And this certainty that evangelicals have of God’s truth is what drives them to lie, to phrase reports and studies in the best possible light to help their side. When you are absolutely, fundamentally certain of what your deity thinks about something, it’s not a hard leap to think that your deity would want you to do almost anything to achieve those ends. And that makes the decision to lie about the facts quite easy, even if your own holy book tells you not to.