America and the world, for that matter, has always had its share of agnostics, atheists, religious people, and people who practiced and espoused religious doctrine when it was convenient for them. The Founding Fathers allowed room for all of them in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
It would be hard to argue that humanity is not a contentious lot. If it were otherwise, our court systems would not be filled with cases that drone on for years from the time the lawsuits are filed until there is some dispensation of justice. This is not a uniquely American problem, although we have elevated it to an art form.
Charles Dickens described one such instance in “Bleak House” in which the original litigants and the judges hearing their case had long since passed into history, and yet the case continued, having developed a life of its own. Justice has often proven itself to be an unlikely competitor in a sprint race.
Despite their vision of allowing people to follow their own consciences as it pertains to the divine, when our courts were established, the Founding Fathers continued a practice that was customary in the giving of evidence. It was taken “under oath”. If you’ve not had the misfortune of being a party to a lawsuit or given testimony in one, you might still remember this oath from television or the movies:
“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
You might also recall that this oath was administered while the witness placed his right hand on The Bible.
Now I haven’t been in a court for many years, thank goodness. Everyone who is in business expects that, sooner or later, they will be sued. I’ve had two such experiences and, of course you’ll realize this is my prejudiced view, found the civil charges brought by competitors to be ludicrous. Fortunately, the judges in both these cases accepted my version of the story and the corroborating evidence I presented and I was vindicated.
However, the only way that the plaintiffs could make their case was by “distorting the facts” – which is a nice way of saying that one or more of their witnesses, at the least was “misinformed” – or, more correctly, committed perjury.
Needless to say, in a situation where two statements are made which are diametrically opposed to one another, if one is found to be true, then the other must be false. Under our system of “not bearing false witness” the person making the untrue statement has obviously violated his societal obligation and his oath in delivering his testimony. It is rare that someone is punished for giving perjured testimony.
In, “A Man For All Seasons”, Thomas More’s daughter, Meg is sent by Henry VIII to persuade her father to swear to the “Act of Succession” which Parliament has passed. As a matter of personal conscience, More has refused but will not explain his reasons.
She argues, “Father, take the oath with your lips and say in your heart that you do not believe it.”
More responds, “What is an oath other than words that we say to God?”
He continues to refuse to take the oath, is tried for sedition and high treason and is convicted through the delivery of perjured testimony. His sentence is that he be hanged, drawn and quartered. The King, in his clemency, commutes that sentence to beheading and he is executed for holding fast to his principles.
That people have committed perjury to gain their own ends is not a recent phenomenon. If it were, there would be no need for a Ninth Commandment. And in an increasingly secular world, where few feel answerable to a higher authority, it makes one pose the same question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Perhaps the answer is that it is the most recent defendant to be put on trial.