The rise of undercover “stings” in recent months has brought a vexing moral question back to the fore: when, if ever, is it okay to lie? The stings I’m referring to, if you’re not familiar, are ones like the following:
- James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute, and secretly videotaped members of the liberal community-activist group ACORN saying horrifying (and illegal) things, like that if you bring underaged prostitutes into the country, but put a roof over their heads, you can probably write them off as “dependents.”
- Live Action, the brainchild of pro-life activist Lila Rose, did a similar thing to Planned Parenthood in 2011, showing PP workers giving advice to a fake “pimp” on how to cover up his alleged crimes against underaged women.
- James O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas, most recently turned its sites on NPR. Two of Project Veritas’ members posed as members of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization, and claiming that they were considering giving $5 million to NPR, went to lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s head of marketing. At the lunch, Schiller talked about how Tea Partiers are “racist, seriously racist,” xenophobic, white middle-Americans, and about how they’re Evangelical, and not really Christian. He also mentioned that NPR would be better off without federal funding, a wish he may soon see granted, although he won’t be there to enjoy it. Both Schiller, and NPR’s CEO (Vivian Schiller, no relation) resigned.
I know, I know. There are various forms of deception. Everything from lying under oath, to intelligence and counter-intelligence, to tricking someone into going to their surprise party, to answering the old “Does this dress make me look fat?” question. There are some instances of deception in which no sane person objects. For example, in football, players often juke left, and then run right. By deceiving their opponents into thinking they’re going the other way, they get a strategic advantage, but of course, nobody thinks that’s sinful. But even if there’s a gray trim around the question of deception, we know that lying is immoral, and we know that as Christians, we can’t do it. The Cathecism tells us that lying is “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” and calls it “the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord” (CCC 2483-84).
But here are two other things which I haven’t heard discussed much:
- Scandal. As the Catechism says: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (CCC 2284). There’s no question that what Planned Parenthood was doing was already a horrible, unspeakable sin that cries out to Heaven for justice. But Live Action piles condemnation upon the PP workers when, through their deception, they encourage Planned Parenthood representatives to help cover up imagined sex crimes. It doesn’t matter that the sex crimes weren’t real. They convinced the workers at Planned Parenthood (human beings loved by God) to internally consent to a whole set of sins that they weren’t already doing. This is a serious offense against the PP workers, as our neighbors, and against God.
- Denying Christ. Live Action isn’t guilty of this, but Project Veritas is. They sent two people to pretend to be Muslims to help advance their goals. If it’s okay to deny Christ to help defund NPR, how is it not okay to deny Christ to keep from being killed? Thousands of Christians globally, in places like China, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq proclaim their faith openly, even though they know it’s often a death sentence.
Even if the logic presented here isn’t 100% persuasive to you, even if you want desperately to find some way to defend Live Action, why in the world should we intentionally tread even into a morally gray area? There are plenty of other tools in our arsenal. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6,
1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
If we start to think that the unadulterated Truth isn’t enough to win the culture war, we’re no longer fighting on the right side. Finally, if you’re interested in what better people than I have to say on the issue, Peter Kreeft defends Live Action, while Mark Shea shows why Kreeft and others are wrong to do so.