Joe Biden asked me to pray for America. I said yes because I value the truth.
We need to hold our leaders to account when they corrupt the political process by using misinformation and lies. Our leaders must champion truth.
On Thursday morning, I shared both my faith and my love for this country and its citizens as a participant in the National Inaugural Prayer Service. As I’m not a pastor or a priest, you may wonder how a mother from the Midwest ended up on the program for a presidential inaugural event.
It began with the pursuit of truth.
Five years ago, I noticed my friends sharing on social media questionable content about Hillary Clinton. As a lifelong Republican, I was inclined to believe negative information about her. But I also value integrity, and it felt important to be certain that what I was seeing was true before passing it along. So I clicked through the links and did some digging into reputable sources.
My conclusion? While I was still not particularly excited about her politics, it was easy to determine that much of the shocking information making the rounds in my feeds was false.
But judging by the passion and speed with which that misleading information was shared among my friends, it was clearly persuasive. As we got closer to the 2016 presidential election, the exchange of misinformation accelerated, and patterns emerged.
First, almost without exception, the material would contain a small truth. This was offered as justification for believing everything else shared.
Next, any criticism of the material was deflected. But most disturbingly I began to hear something new: clever and competent people were giving up on truth.
When intellectually cornered, friends responded with a version of: “We can’t really know what is true, can we?” And that ambiguity led rational people to embrace lies.
Over the past four years the misinformation has intensified. We now know that in 2016 Americans were the target of a carefully designed influence campaign by foreign actors.
And in 2020, patterns that were hidden in shadows of our last election became an open political strategy. QAnon and others used conspiracy theories to turn us against each other as Americans and against the notion of objective truth.
Accelerated by a pandemic and their endorsement by the president and other leaders of his party, the lies spread further and faster. Ultimately these lies sought to undermine not only political opponents, but the integrity of our elections, culminating in an attack on the Capitol.
Without question, misinformation has harmed our nation, and in this moment it would be easy to misdirect our anger at the millions of citizens who have shared falsehoods. But that will not achieve a lasting solution and may even aggravate the problem.
Instead, we need to start with our leaders, holding them to account when they corrupt the political process by using misinformation and lies. Our leaders must champion truth.
All citizens are responsible
As my co-religionist Mitt Romney has said in defense of the integrity of our elections, the pursuit of truth is “the burden (and) …the duty of leadership.” I was deeply grateful for President Joe Biden’s inaugural commitment to this burden, and I plan to hold him to his word.
But truth-seeking is also the burden of citizenship. It requires us to discipline our political responses and motivations. We must learn to cast informed votes, not just emotional ones.
We must defend and pay for legitimate sources of information. Every American should recognize attacks on the press as attacks on democracy. We should demand that our leaders act transparently, and we should praise media sources that are even-handed and avoid sensationalism.
Finally, we can come together as groups of citizens to source and share trustworthy information and to support each other in defending truth.
This last solution is critical for me. Four years ago, I joined Mormon Women for Ethical Government, and suddenly, I no longer felt alone in my pursuit of truth in the realm of politics. MWEG members seek to find and identify truth independent of party.
Then we work collaboratively to hold our elected officials accountable to that truth. We strive to create a community with a healthy herd immunity to lies.
My fellow MWEG members voluntarily carry a little bit of our national burden each time they research from solid sources, engage with friends and family entrenched in conspiracy theories, and speak out against politicians who lie.
Our determination to push ahead is found in our religious commitment to seek truth and our belief in a democracy that should equally protect the rights of every American. This commitment sends us to our knees each day as we seek for discernment and pray for our nation and its leaders.
Hold leaders accountable for truth
Which brings me back to last week’s prayer service. Participating in such an event wasn’t an endorsement of a party or candidate. Instead, it was an act of faith in the future.
I was honored to represent my organization of women who will work alongside all citizens willing to build our nation and to hold President Biden and all elected officials accountable “to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
And I am hopeful, after his inaugural speech, that while I may have a president I will disagree with at times, I also will have a president who I can trust. Truth is critical in a democracy, and we all must recommit to being a nation of truth seekers and truth tellers.
Emma Petty Addams is a mother, musician and the executive director of Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She lives in Omaha, Neb., with her husband and three sons.