The Devil, the Truth & Tim Pawlenty
In announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President Monday, Tim Pawlenty revealed a measured understanding of truth. Pawlenty's preachment presents a long-overdue opportunity to reexamine some very American understandings of sin, Hell, and forgiveness.
Before announcing his bid for President, Pawlenty publicly apologized for his past support for a regional cap-and-trade program and, in calling it a "mistake," asked for forgiveness. This showed that he knows something about truth-telling, even when it means being truthful with himself.
Truth and the pursuit of it, as Pawlenty points out, require sacrifice. "When times get tough," he admits, "there's always a temptation among politicians to try to turn the American people against one-another." Pawlenty promised us a different approach: "I am going to tell you the truth." He identified the problem, perhaps sin, in President Barack Obama's "failed" policies of "spending," "bailouts," and a "federal takeover of health care," which he labeled an "unmitigated disaster."
Telling the truth, as Pawlenty suggests, "isn't about telling people what you think they want to hear" or furthering the "conventional political wisdom." It's about making tough choices and knowing the "value of hard work and the responsibility for doing [your] part" even when it may seem unpopular. Pawlenty, speaking in a subsidy-dependent Iowa, delicately challenged ethanol subsidies.
Pawlenty then said he'd travel to Florida and propose "gradually rais[ing] [the] Social Security retirement age," means testing Social Security, and reforming Medicare with "pay for performance" incentives. And later, he plans to go to Wall Street and slap down the notion of "too big to fail." "Some people will be upset," Pawlenty conceded, in bit of an understatement.
Others can pick apart the politics of it, but allow me to suggest that Pawlenty's campaign theme of "truth" is a bold theological choice. It's certainly more powerful than John McCain's shallow "straight talk" refrain. Truth is an eschatological word with real meaning, rather than shortsighted, yet popular mottos like "hope" and "change." These open-ended slogans will always beg and leave unanswered the questions: "What hope?" and "What change?" Truth, on the other hand, has consequences.
Untruthers want us to believe that there is no problem and no consequences for inaction. In March when Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker sought to eliminate a near-$4 billion dollar deficit by taking on public sector unions, Michael Moore famously proclaimed that Wisconsin -- and America -- "is not broke."
This notion is prevalent in theological circles as well. Rev. Carlton Pearson told NBC's Dateline that he was "angry that people go to Hell." "God," he wondered after watching images of Rwandan poverty and death, "I don't know how you're going to call yourself a loving God and allow these people to suffer so much and then just suck them into Hell."
Pearson then rethought Hell as an "earthly experience," where after death everyone would be redeemed. This was his faux novel theological idea: a "gospel of inclusion." "People who believe in the traditional hell," as he admonished those who understand Hell as a place of eternal judgment, "tend to create it for themselves and others."
Unfortunately, Pearson is not alone as an untruther. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong also told Dateline that Hell is an invention of the Church, a "control tactic." Christ's death on the cross doesn't "save" us, he says, but "calls us to be more human." Reverend Rob Bell presents a more recent, and dangerously popular, version of this rethinking of sin. Bell's book Love Wins suggests that "the redemptive work of Christ is beyond what we can ask or imagine" -- or even reject. "God's love is so big that the invitation to God's grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved."
But perhaps the truth is that all aren't saved, that some people become fundamentally "fallen." January 2011's The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins opens with this quote from Blessed Pope John Paul II: "The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is alive and active in the world." Clearly not your typical Hollywood message.
In The Rite, a young, skeptical seminarian is sent to Rome to be trained in the rite of exorcism. His experiences with an "unorthodox" exorcist seem to convince him of the existence of Hell. In discussing the young seminarian's unbelief, the exorcist asks, "Does a thief or a burglar turn on the lights when he's robbing your house? No. He prefers you to believe that he's not there. Like the Devil; he prefers you to believe that he doesn't exist."
Later, in a chilling encounter with a possessed girl, the doubting seminarian asks the girl, whom the Devil is speaking through, "How can I fear you if you don't exist?" The exorcist reminds the young seminarian "choosing not to believe in the Devil won't protect you from him." Only once the young seminarian realizes this truth, and forgives himself for unbelief, is he able to beat the Devil.
Back in Des Moines, Pawlenty also reminds us that none of the challenges ahead are "easy," otherwise they wouldn't really be challenges. He says we must have more than "hope" to solve the problems America faces. He's onto something there. If we're going to beat our national devils, we must start by sizing them up and telling the truth -- come what may.