What Donald Trump could learn from the Reformation (But probably would say he already knows)

“Because I said so.”

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said this when my kid has asked me for permission to do something (usually something so dumb I can’t believe he’s asking) or if he’s challenged me on a fact (usually something so obvious I can’t be bothered to explain it) or when he’s nagged me so many times, I’ve lost all patience. Mind you, when you’re a parent to a small child, you can get away with “because I said so.”

But a funny thing happens when kids get older. They start to push back. They ask: “yes, but WHY?” That’s because, as our kids begin to see our faults and flaws, they lose faith in our authority. They begin to understand that there are other sources of truth in the world besides their parents. They are able to evaluate the things you say against the facts they already know, or decide if what you’re saying fits with what they’ve seen themselves, or if it makes practical or logical sense.

In other words, saying something is true “because I said so,” only works when the person who says so is more trustworthy than any other source of information, and when the person they’re addressing believes that authority is valid.

Truth criteria
For example – if I’m on a plane, and a random passenger tells me to put on my seatbelt and life vest, I’m going to roll my eyes. On the other hand, if the captain comes on the speaker and tells me to buckle up, I’ll do it right away.

Philosophers call this a “criteria of truth.” Truth criteria are the standards and rules that people use to judge the accuracy of statements and claims.

The airplane example – and the parent saying “because I said so” – are both examples of what philosophers call an “appeal to authority.” If I’m smart, experienced and qualified to speak about a certain subject, then my opinion should command respect. Mathematicians, engineers, doctors and scientists have traditionally been part of an exclusive club of people whose authority carried more weight than most. And – until recently – that club included the President of the United States.

In the past, if a President expressed an opinion about some aspect of world affairs, the economy or the environment, people would listen closely to what he had to say. You might not agree with the President, necessarily, but you could assume – rightly so – that he had been fully briefed by experts in the field and had arrived at his conclusions based on his best judgement.

Then came Donald Trump.

Who do you believe?
From the beginning, his claims to truth have been over the top. He claims to have one of the highest IQs, he says he has the best words, had the biggest inauguration crowd in history, knows everything there is to know about health care – all claims that are totally, completely pants-on-fire false. They are lies. Period.

He’s also lashed out at the media. Trump calls the New York Times “failing” (it’s not) and news he doesn’t like “fake” (it isn’t) and constantly threatens to sue for libel (he never has). In other words, he’s asking people to choose: who do you believe more? Me or the Media?

It’s a clever trick. People who don’t have the ability to distinguish between good and bad sources of information, or people who only like comfortable truths that fit with the world they already know – people, in other words, who trust the word of the President like a small child trusts their parents – take the president at his word. For them, what he says is true, must be true – because he said so.

It’s also a dangerous trick. Because sooner or later, the real truth comes out. Sooner or later, when the things the president says, like “you’ll keep your 401k” or “Trumpcare will be better than Obamacare” or “I’m making America Great Again,” no longer stack up to the experiences of his followers, it will no longer be enough that Trump said so.

That’s a big part of what the Reformation was about. People stopped believing things simply because the church “said so.” They wanted to know where, for example, the Bible says that we need to pay indulgences for the souls of the dead. They wanted to read the words of scripture themselves and come to their own conclusions. The pope and the church lost authority because what they preached didn’t match people’s understanding of God and the world.

Now, while I’m sure Trump would claim to know “everything there is to know about the Reformation,” there’s a lesson in that chapter of history for him. Sooner or later, even the most fervent of believers will start to doubt you if what you say – and what they see with their own eyes – doesn’t match up.

Eventually, “because I said so” isn’t enough. 

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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