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Iowa’s presidential caucuses, last January, were a non-event. On the Republican side, the only question was could any candidate pose a realistic challenge to Donald Trump. (Spoiler Alert: They couldn’t). On the Democratic side, there was an incumbent president, and after the caucus debacle of 2020 it is unlikely that Iowa’s caucuses will ever regain their former prominence.

For the sake of my soul, I paid as little attention as possible to the entire affair. There was for me, however, one flash of significance. Not far from my home I encountered a phalanx of “Truth” yard signs along a busy street. Probably 12 to 15 signs placed every ten feet or so. They were in support of Vivek Ramaswamy. 

The signs set loose within me a whole row of tumbling dominoes about truth and Truth. 

If you don’t know much about Vivek Ramaswamy, consider yourself fortunate. He was an abrasive, annoying, obnoxious, snide, and short-lived candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He seemed to be running on the “If Trump isn’t hateful, conspiratorial, and rude enough for you, then I’m your guy” platform. Many pundits suggested he was auditioning for a vice presidential nod, or at least a lesser cabinet post. 

“Truth” from someone like Ramaswamy is presumed to be caustic stuff. He wants you to understand truth in that way. Drinking of his toxic brew is your civic duty. He claims he dares to tell the ugly truth. His self-appointed task is to lay bare the lies and rot at the core of American society. Truth, then, is aggressive, painful, and simple

No doubt, that is an aspect of truth. “Give it to me straight!” or “Strong medicine.” Parts of the Bible might agree — up to a point. Many of the prophets can be more than a bit caustic when denouncing royalty and religion. Jesus, as well, has some pointed and revealing remarks on occasion.

Ultimately, however, “Truth” has to be something beautiful and whole, something attractive, a glowing light drawing me in, something ineffable, something I am unable to fully hold or understand. 

So I am troubled when truth is first associated with something so mean, so blustery, and so smug. I fear it tells us something is wrong with both the messenger and the recipients.

Aerial photos of the National Mall at Obama’s 2008 inauguration (left) and Trump’s 2016 inauguration (right).

Remember the “record-setting crowd” at Trump’s inauguration?  His administration’s “alternative facts” gave a bad rap to post-modernity’s aversion to truth. Perhaps, deservedly so. Suddenly facts were back in style. 

I, however, have imbibed a lot of postmodern kool-aid, and still find it tasty. It makes you wary of absolute truth claims. It makes you wary of people who tell you they have the truth (Ramaswamy: Exhibit A). You need not be a total relativist to believe that truth is more elusive than our rational world knows. 

For me, Truth is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word made flesh for us and for our salvation. Admittedly, I don’t fully know what I mean by that. It’s more of a motto than a carefully scrutinized statement. But it reminds me that Truth is not caustic and malicious. It is vast and fulfilling and beautiful. I think it also relativizes everything else. It helps me hold my own truth claims lightly and be skeptical of the claims of others.

That single word, “Truth” emblazoned on Ramaswamy’s yard signs brought to mind another single word political motto. Hope — from the iconic Obama campaign posters, especially in 2008. How long ago and far away that now seems. (He groans nostalgically.)

Why is it that hope attracts me, just as Ramaswamy’s truth repulses me? Of course, part of what I was drawn to was Obama the person — in stark contrast to Ramaswamy the person. In all probability, their choice of mottoes tells us something about each of them.

Why is hope more compelling than truth? And possibly, why should Christians be known as bearers of hope more than truth?

Hope is airy and effervescent, springing up where unexpected and unbidden. It’s the thing with feathers. In contrast, truth has a heavy, static, know-it-all-ness quality. Hope is something we glimpse. Truth — at least, Ramasway’s kind — is something you can possess, control, and use like a cudgel. 

Yes, hope is rather undefined — critics might say too much so. I’d suggest it is open-ended. Hope is captivating, uniting, drawing together and drawing forward. It is visionary and future-oriented. Hope points toward something. Truth thinks it has arrived. Hope is an invitation, while truth is a declaration. 

Hostile and simplistic truths may bring a short-lived catharsis, but will not ultimately satisfy.  Meanwhile, our own coarseness and cynicism are to hope what manure and malignant fertilizer are to Iowa’s waters. 

Still, when I look for hope, I find it — more than I even expect. And sometimes it comes to me when I’m not looking. The Kingdom of God is among you. 

If some familiar verses and phrases about “truth” from John’s gospel are now ricocheting within you — maybe you’re even wondering if they undercut my somewhat critical comments about truth — I might commend to you Grace and Truth?, and/or With a Capital T, and/or Three Goes at Truth.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Kirk Vanhouten says:

    “Ultimately, however, “Truth” has to be something beautiful and whole, something attractive, a glowing light drawing me in, something ineffable, something I am unable to fully hold or understand.” is a moderately poetic way of saying “Truth is being told what I like to hear”.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Wow, what a cold splash of cynicism, Kirk. It’s a pretty bleak existence to believe that beautiful and compelling Truth is simply selfish wish-fulfillment. I’d contend that when we have flashes of awareness of the ever-among-us, beautiful, compelling Truth, it transcends, transforms, often eclipses, and sometimes crushes our truths, as well as selfish wishes. At least, I hope so.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Steve, Is there another Obama like person who will bring HOPE to our country? I can’t think of anyone but there must be someone who will inspire us to new heights.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    There is insight here.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Or as Jack Nicholson said “You can’t handle the truth!”

    Or “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” John 8:32

    “…for the law came through Moses, Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17

    Sounds like Grace is a companion to Truth and offered as much needed Hope in whose truth to believe.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Joyce, shameless self-promotion, but some of those texts are precisely the ones I explore in the links in the small print at the bottom of the blog. Short version: “truth” in John’s gospel is only mildly similar to what we call truth.

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Thank you for bringing dear Emily into the conversation. That’s a dear little poem to memorize.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Love is better than either truth or hope. God is love, love fulfills the law, we love with actions and in truth, etc.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Indeed. “The greatest of these is love.” I suppose the question is how does love appear in the public realm and politics? I believe it was Cornell West who said something like “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Maybe …?

  • Wesley says:

    That’s why I think it matters that Jesus is the Truth – because it’s not so much about US possessing the Truth as it is about the Truth possessing us. Contrast Jesus as the Truth to the Bible as the Truth – a book nicely bound up in leather that you can hold in your hand and bang on a pulpit.

  • RZ says:

    Nice summary, Wesley! Indeed, truth is a yard-sign commodity, a power-wielding tool. Steve is absolutely right.

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