It is certainly not impossible for a fundamentalist Christian organization to violate the Ten Commandments. Examples are easy to find. We don't even need to go back to Jim Bakker's PTL club, although our search can end there. It can be argued that the sex scandal was not organizational, being the downfall only of individuals. But the organizational defrauding of loyal contributors would seem to be a violation of the prohibition against stealing.
In some interpretations of the Talmud, this is actually a commandment against kidnapping, not against the taking of anything material. This might leave some evangelic organizations in the clear, except for more earthly authority, like Chuck Grassley (R-IA) or the the IRS (Pitbull from Hell).
Lesser offenses like false witness are more common. They just carry fewer civil penalties when directed against public figures. When President Obama was still candidate Obama, he was accused by angry evangelicals of distorting the beliefs of conservative professional Christian James Dobson. Obama had suggested that Christians of good will could have differing interpretations of scripture. Here was the Obama libel:
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount -- a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our Bibles now. Folks haven't been reading their Bibles.
It was the only reference Obama made to Dobson in the disputed speech. To be fair, those false-witness conservatives were not speaking for Dobson's organization. And it should not be surprising that conservatives can be inflamed by political passion into distortions that occasionally cross the line into falsehood. But Dobson himself accused Obama of ... well ... having an incorrect interpretation of the Bible. Okay, actually, Dobson went a little farther. Obama had deliberately distorted Biblical teachings. Well, this could be defended as an innocent misinterpretation by a rigid old man. Or it could be dismissed as a violation of the 9th Commandment by an individual, rather than an organization.
What about when an organization lies about policy debate? Would that count as false witness?
Dobson's organization, the Family Research Council, recently did a Breitbart style editing job on a document issued by the Congressional Budget Office. They put ellipses to clip out part of the document in order to change the meaning. They were attempting to reinforce their position on morality, that work on reducing debt must never ever reduce tax breaks for the extremely wealthy. The part they edited out is highlighted:
To restore investors' confidence, policymakers would probably need to enact spending cuts or tax increases more drastic and painful than those that would have been necessary had the adjustments come sooner.
They then omitted completely the words immediately following:
To keep deficits and debt from climbing to unsustainable levels, policymakers will need to increase revenues substantially as a percentage of GDP, decrease spending significantly from projected levels, or adopt some combination of those two approaches.
The CBO then cautioned against acting too quickly while the economy is still in recovery. This was also left out by the Dobson organization.
Making such changes while economic activity and employment remain well below their potential levels would probably slow the economic recovery.
Here is the CBO document. And here are the Dobson organization claims. The altered bit that was left in was placed within a series of quotes from prominent Republicans so that it seemed to validate their veracity.
Certainly this is is an example of false witness. But is false witness always against God's word? The commandment, in most translations, reads "Do not bear false witness against your neighbor." This would seem to exclude lying that is not against someone. The classic hypothetical case involves lying to Nazi authorities looking for hidden Jews.
And truth telling is not always right, Wikileaks notwithstanding. When Tom Foley (R-FL) was outed for making sexual advances to young boys serving as Senate Pages, angry conservatives published the youngsters' home addresses in retaliation for tattling. When two seriously ill children, siblings, survived with the help of a government program, they served as examples of why the program needed expanded funding. Fox contributor Michelle Malkin defended the publishing of their address and driving directions to their home. Both times, conservatives were completely truthful. In both cases, the conservative ethic was reprehensible.
Some translations of the Ten Commandments show the prohibition against false witness as applying only to formal testimony in a legal forum. This interpretation would liberate even Andrew Breitbart clones. Lying is okay, even smearing innocent people. God does draw the line at perjury.
It could be that religious conservatives violate none of the Ten Commandments when they lie, smear, or publish the home addresses of children. There may indeed be divine loopholes. Besides, they believe themselves to be untruthful in the service of the Lord.
But the case they are making, and conservatism itself, may be seen more skeptically if they do not have enough confidence in their beliefs or themselves to defend that case honestly.
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