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Language is one of our democracy’s most precious tool. Words are the basis of law, and the means by which we debate, reach understanding and establish agreements. We use words to clarify our ideals and values, and how deeply we hold them. We use words to discern fiction and deception from truth.

When we hear truths, deep truths, we are moved because they resonate within us. They are compelling because either we recognize they are true, or we admit that they ought to be true. They reignite the principles that drive us to be better, as individuals, as a community, and as a country. Few among us would dispute one of the most powerful truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence – our “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The signatories to the Declaration found this truth so compelling, so self-evident, that they collectively risked everything to achieve them, pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

This idea of honor – of personal integrity- resonates with us still. When we make a pledge to do something, what do we offer? ‘I give you my word.’ We expect each other to keep our word, not only in our personal relationships, but in our self-governance and our system of justice. Most of us are familiar with the well-known oath we require of witnesses who provide court testimony: “Do you solemnly swear that the evidence you shall give in this matter shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” We require this because we cannot achieve justice without truth. Without truth, our democracy will fail.

It is this dedication to truth that is at risk. “We are now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether any nation so conceived can long endure.” Lincoln’s words ring as true today as they did when he spoke them in January 1863. But the battlefield we now stand upon is far more dangerous. Our current conflict, this uncivil war, threatens to destroy one of the most essential ingredients of our American experiment, because it is an attack on truth. It threatens our capacity to be a self-governing nation, and our willingness and ability to engage in the work by and for the people – improving law and policy to protect our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Elections and candidates come and go with the years. They differ in their strengths and weaknesses, because none of us is perfect. And what we may need from them may change with the times. But what must never change is a dedication to the truth. We could wish for them to be eloquent, because we may want our leaders to inspire us. But if we must choose between eloquence and honesty, that choice should not be difficult to make. To be clear, dedication to the truth and personal integrity are not the highest qualities we should seek in elected leaders; they are the minimum. Any person lacking these is ill-suited for public service, and is certainly not qualified to lead the most powerful country on earth.

Christopher Maricle
Educator, Author