Christianity is Bigger Than Christine O'Donnell.

This morning, Matthew Yglesias wrote a pretty decent post on Christine O'Donnell that was unfortunately marred by a pretty narrow take on Christianity as it applies to lying:

I would further add that from a Christian perspective, I don’t think the Kantian view is all that problematic. When you lie you’re doing something wrong, and you’re not really serving any kind of greater good because the sin still exists in the heart of the murderer and for the truly innocent death is only a small penalty as it brings you closer to God. I take it that most nominally Christian people in America (of which I am not one) reject this line of argument, but that mostly goes to show that people tend not to fully think through doctrines of heaven and hell to which they’re formally committed.

I had an e-mail back-and-forth with Charles Mathewes [disclosure: I was his student], a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, who strongly disagreed with Yglesias' reductive take on Christianity and lying:

But the problem is that lying has been something of a fraught topic from time to time in Christian thought. What about spies? What about the idea of a noble lie? Augustine was quite absolute about lying, but not everyone has been so absolute; the best example is the 20th-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who (in his incomplete work Ethics) has a whole discussion about what exactly constitutes telling the truth and what may look like a lie but is in fact the protection of one sphere of human life from incursion by another sphere (nosy people).

In other words, it's terribly inaccurate to say that there is a "Christian" view on lying; more accurate would be to say that there is a long and varied tradition of Christian disagreement on what it means to lie and what it means to tell the truth. Moreover, as Mathewes noted in his e-mail, it's a little weird to pivot from Christine O'Donnell's view on lying to what "nominal Christians" believe about lying (and implicitly, what they ought to think about lying). As Mathewes wrote:

He tacitly allows a very narrow slice (historically and demographically today) of people who call themselves "Christian" to set the gold standard for what Christian is.

In historical terms, Mathewes says, "Christians of the sort that O'Donnell and her ilk are, are actually fairly marginal to the larger witness of the Christian churches." Conservative Catholics -- and their evangelical fellow-travelers -- are among the most vocal of American Christians, but they are actually pretty unrepresentative of Christianity as it's been practiced historically, as it's practiced in the United States, and as it's practiced in the world at large. I get very annoyed when well-meaning liberals like Yglesias generalize from one particular group of Christians to make broad, normative statements about the religion and its adherents.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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