Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Well, we have another amusing Christine O'Donnell story -- but I want to make the point that she's not being eccentric, which is what we may think:

O’Donnell So Fervently Pro-Truth That She Wouldn’t Lie To Nazis Asking If She Were Hiding Jews In Her Home

... In 1998, while O'Donnell was a guest on
Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she ... argu[ed] that "telling the truth is always the right thing to do, I believe, and that's what always gets you out of a situation."

Comedian Eddie Izzard pressed her on just how far she would take her anti-lying beliefs. Izzard asked O'Donnell whether or not she would lie to Nazis who showed up at her door during WWII and demanded to know if she were hiding any Jewish people in her house. O'Donnell refused to even entertain the notion of concealing the truth from Nazis in that scenario because "you never have to practice deception":

... IZZARD: What if someone comes to you in the middle of the Second World War and says, 'do you have any Jewish people in your house?' and you do have them. That would be a lie. That would be disrespectful to Hitler.

O’DONNELL: I believe if I were in that situation, God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously. I believe that!

MAHER: God is not there. Hitler's there and you’re there.

O’DONNELL: You never have to practice deception. God always provides a way out.

This actually came up in my Catholic grammar school in the 1960s. The nun who was teaching us agreed that a lie would be appropriate in that extreme circumstance. But that's not Catholic teaching. The Catholic catechism actually condemns all lying. It does say you don't have an obligation to reveal the truth in some situations -- but it doesn't say that it's morally correct to lie. In fact, it says pretty much what O'Donnell says:

2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

I'm bringing this up because I think most people in America -- including most Christian conservatives and devout Catholics -- would agree with the nun at my school, and with Izzard, that "discreet language" ain't gonna cut it if there's a Nazi at your door, so you damn well better lie outright if you want to protect the folks in the Secret Annex. But that means that, according to the tenets of the Catholic Church, they'd be advocating sin -- maybe a less grave sin than another kind of lie, but a sin nonetheless.

In fact, a lot of what's risible in O'Donnell's belief system tracks perfectly with Catholic theology. Her objections to the use of condoms to slow the spread of HIV jibe with the Pope's. Her belief that masturbation is never acceptable is exactly in sync what her church teaches.


Now, think about the way many people on the right talk about Islam. They insist that Islam is incompatible with Western values, and to prove this they cite passages from the Koran that can seem, to Westerners, a bit offputting.

But assuming that all Muslims seek to live according to a harsh, draconian, and bellicose version of Islam is like assuming that all Catholics agree with Christine O'Donnell. We know that most Christians in the West aren't like her; we know most Jews and Christians and (possibly including O'Donnell) don't agree, for example, with the notion of executing prostitutes, spiritualists, adulterers those who engage in premarital sex, including , those who are seduced while engaged.

So why can't we imagine a similar degree of malleability for Muslim belief?

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