The new religious alliance formed by former Presidents Carter and Clinton, both unabashed Christians, reminded me of a brief exchange I had with an acquaintance more than a decade ago. During an after-dinner conversation the subject, once again, came around to religion and intelligence.
"How can anyone with an ounce of brains believe that nonsense?" he asked.
I explained to him that I was not blessed with the gift of evangelism and if he was seeking someone to give him reason to change his mind, he should look elsewhere. Truthfully, I would love it if everyone could discover the peace and contentment that I have found, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.
But he was relentless. "You'd have to be an idiot!" he continued.
In an attempt to end the discussion I pointed out that his hero, William Jefferson Clinton, the man he considered to be the most intelligent human in the history of civilization (because he did the Times Sunday Crossword in pen) was a committed Christian.
"Never!" he snapped. "He's way too smart."
"He speaks of his Christian faith all the time." I answered.
"He's lying," came the instant reply.
I stared for a moment. Did he just say what I think he said?
Then he continued: "He's lying because he knows that an Atheist could never be elected. And anybody that smart has got to be an Atheist."
Of course, that means he's been telling the same lie since the Kennedy administration, but that didn't seem to faze this sycophant on this night. In fact, he explained that he expected him to lie... he encouraged him to lie... because it's the only way he could achieve power and implement his agenda.
While I'm as cynical as the next guy about politicians and truthfulness, it had never occurred to me that Mr. Clinton would construct this elaborate lie early in life and actively maintain the deception through four decades. Any candidate can get around the religion thing by simply showing up at church now and then and keeping his mouth shut on the subject. Why then this intricate fabrication? He didn't just show up at church, he spoke candidly about how his faith informed every aspect of his public and private life.
If this is a lie, it's a beaut. I can understand and even accept political lies as reasonable puffing of the wares. After all, nobody's going to rush out and vote for the candidate that declares: "I'm as impotent as the other guy, but I have better hair." They have to express unwavering commitment to bold new strategies and breakthrough ideas. But, with rare exceptions, they never actually describe those ideas and strategies let alone act on them.
All these years later few of his supporters or detractors can say exactly what Bill Clinton's agenda might have been. The Clintonistas looked to him, teary eyed with hearts palpitating, as the Messiah who would finally lead them to their Utopian Promised Land. His opponents warned of dire consequences indeed if, left unchecked, he was able to put his ideas into action. What ideas?
Who was right? It turns out that our 26th President, who had died nearly thirty years before B.J. was born, had him pegged. Like the political hacks that Teddy Roosevelt derided a century ago, it seems he was interested not at all with big ideas, but with digging sewer lines in Ashtabula.
In the intervening years I've recalled this short conversation on occasion and one simple question still gnaws at me: If they know he's lying about this, how do they know when he's telling the truth? Does Hillary know? Does he have a secret code or a hand signal? And if he does, why hasn’t anyone figured it out yet?
I suspect that the answer is much simpler and more universal. It's not so much that politicians lie to us. It's more that we're all lying to ourselves; hearing what we want to hear and seeing what we want to see.
"What kind of a Christian are you?" he sneered when I tried to turn the conversation toward baseball. "Don't you care if I get to Heaven."
I didn't care then and don't care now.
"Part of the attraction of Heaven" I explained, "is that you won't be there."