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If you are Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, or a writer for Saturday Night Live, George Santos is your meal ticket of the moment. He’s low hanging comedic fruit, a man so farcical in reality that it requires almost no effort at all to push things into the territory of the absurd. It reminds me of the time in 1992 when Dan Quayle misspelled potato in an elementary school classroom and took issue with a fictional TV character, prompting Johnny Carson to thank Vice President Quayle for making his final week as host of the Tonight Show so fruitful.
At the end of the day, though, George Santos is a tragic figure. He appears to be a man so lacking in character and in any semblance of confidence in his actual life or accomplishments or intelligence that he has fabricated an entire past out of whole cloth. He has at least a couple of aliases he has gone by and is so desperate for some kind of recognition that he has not hesitated to exploit the Holocaust and 9/11 to stake some kind of claim to history—and most ordinary, sane people would surely agree that horning in on historic tragedies to lie about yourself or your ancestors is about as tawdry as it gets.
Yes, we all sometimes get facts about our pasts wrong. Studies have shown that people have misreported their past when answering questions like “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” and “Where were you when you first heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center?” Not long ago I mentioned to a woman I know that I remember meeting her when she was in junior high and had braces on her teeth. She assured me she never wore orthodontics on her teeth. Yet somehow I remembered her that way.
These, of course, are involuntary mis-rememberings. We may not be telling the truth but we are not intentionally lying or making something up or trying to cover something up. Still, Christians of integrity know how vital it is to be people of the truth and to do our best always to tell the truth. Lies told to excuse ourselves for something we once did that we are now embarrassed or ashamed about or confabulations of our past to make ourselves look better, brighter, more heroic than we actually are—these things are universally condemned in the Bible. We are supposed to be as transparent to the truth as we can be.
If we are not, then we are building the proverbial house of cards. Speaking of all things proverbial, the Book of Proverbs is one of the main places in the Bible that warn us against lying lips and tall tales and false representations of ourselves or of anything and anyone else. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6). The Bible is realistic: lying works in the short term. Liars often get ahead in life. But a life built on lies cannot and will not endure.
Truly pathological liars eventually get to the point where they honestly don’t know truth from fiction anymore. They come to believe the lies about themselves they have told over and over and once that tipping point is reached, it’s a short few further steps to arrive at a place where not only does the truth not matter anymore, the truth can even be perceived as a threat.
This clearly undercuts a lot of the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. One type of deception I often ponder in my line of work is plagiarism in the pulpit. Preachers engage in plagiarism for a variety of reasons, most pretty sad at base. But when the words of a sermon are stolen from another and palmed off as the pastor’s own, it becomes at best difficult for this pastor to be a valid proclaimer of the truth. The preacher who makes him- or herself opaque to the congregation cannot simultaneously be transparent in presenting Jesus. It’s tough to show the Light of the world when the preacher is working from the shadows of deception.
It’s easy to laugh at George Santos. He is a self-caricature. But he cannot survive for long. He seems lost to himself above all, and that is tragic for anyone. As Proverbs makes clear, when your whole life is a chimera and a vapor, it will sooner or later just disappear like the morning mist once the sun comes out.
But Santos is also a warning for all of us. We live in a time when social media lets people lie about themselves and others with seeming impunity. (Small wonder that a SNL joke from last weekend claimed that soon George Santos will go be yet another alias: Instagram.) Today as much as ever we are all properly called up short by the clarion words in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 112 in commenting on the ninth commandment: “I should love the truth, speak it candidly,
and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”