February 11, 2022

Are Adventists Still Truth Seekers?

Staying vigilant in the era of fake news

Alva James-Johnson

Martin Luther, the iconic German priest who upended the religious establishment of his time, placed truth at the center of his seismic protest. Rooted in biblical moorings, Luther stood firmly against church authorities who dared to mix truth with error—a toxic brew that leads, inevitably, to spiritual delusion.

As Seventh-day Adventists, we have traditionally identified with the righteous indignation of Luther and other Protestant Reformers, considering ourselves the remnant among truth preservationists.

Truth at all costs, we preach loudly from our pulpits, even if “the heavens fall’ and it means sacrificing life, limb, or treasure.

As someone who grew up in the church and attended Adventist schools from elementary to the collegiate level, I held tightly to those ideals as I transitioned to mainstream media, working as a newspaper reporter in various metropolitan areas. Searching for “the best obtainable version of the truth,” as the legendary Watergate investigative reporter Carl Bernstein defines it, I went to great lengths to confirm information before disseminating it to the public.

In journalism, an old adage admonishes us, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

And in the newsrooms where I worked, we lived by that mantra. Verify. Verify. Verify.

Granted, we did not always get it right, but truth was our main objective. When we fell short, we made every effort—as most journalists do—to correct the error as quickly as possible.

Our editors would tolerate no less.

The Post-Truth Era

But now we live in a post-truth era, in which misinformation, fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories spread on social media like a California wildfire. In today’s polarized political arena, truth has become an inconvenient and unwelcome intruder in the lives of many people—including church members who prefer to dwell in echo chambers that reinforce their biases.

Facts no longer matter if they get in the way of personal comforts and political agendas, even among Christians. The press is “the enemy of the people,” while QAnon conspiracy theorists are trusted sources.

The pervasive distrust of government officials, church leaders, media, scientists, academics, judges—even Adventist health-care professionals—has left many people disillusioned and cynical. We have seen this play out in:

  • the Birther movement, which perpetuated the false notion that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States, despite documentation on his birth certificate
  • false reports that the Trump White House website included a QVC advertisement for jewelry sold by First Lady Melania Trump
  • Facebook posts circulating unverified claims that President Donald Trump's father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan
  • the belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by Democrats, despite the election being certified by state election officials from both parties and claims of fraud being dismissed by judges across the country
  • efforts by some national leaders and American citizens to downplay the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and characterize the incident as a harmless gathering
  • intense backlash against COVID-19 vaccines and mask wearing, fueled by conspiracy theories flooding social media

While it might be tempting to associate such falsehoods with a particular party, there is plenty of blame to go around. Many Democrats, for example, supported President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when he claimed he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” They seemed unfazed by Clinton’s redefinition of “sexual relations” as long as he advanced their political agenda.

Republicans, on the other hand, could not contain their vitriol. They demonized the Clintons for not only the Monica Lewinsky scandal but everything from Travelgate to Whitewater.

And yet, in the era of President Donald Trump, where lying seemed to become a national pastime, most Republicans stood firmly behind the president, defending his fabricating ways. In 2021, fact checkers at the Washington Post concluded that the former president made a total of 30,573 false or misleading claims while in office.

On January 8, 2022, Wesley Knight, pastor of Revision Church, an Adventist congregation in Atlanta, Georgia, preached a sermon titled “Let’s Try This Again.” In the introduction he compared the difference in media coverage of the January 6, 2021, one-year anniversary by various cable TV news outlets.

 “It was the same January 6. It was the same attack on the Capitol. Yet the reports from CNN and MSNBC and Fox News were terribly and horribly different,” Knight said. “One side says the attack was an attack on democracy. The other side says it was not an attack but an attempt to protect democracy.

“And here’s why I raised this today,” he continued. “If we cannot agree on the reality of the state of this democracy, then we can never agree on the solutions to the problems that we face. Our destiny—hear me today—is wrapped up in our ability to agree on reality.”

Orlan Johnson, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, described in a recent interview the impact politics and misinformation are having on the Adventist community.

“I think many of us have always seen a certain amount of what I would call ‘politics and community connections’ and things of that nature,” Johnson said. “But it seems as though the church, which has obviously always been a microcosm of society, has gotten even more connected, and we’re at a point now where sometimes it’s unclear whether our faith is shaping our politics or whether our politics is shaping our faith.”

Johnson, a longtime Washington, D.C., lawyer who served as chair of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation under President Obama, said the problem is on both sides of the political divide.

“I would not say that this is something exclusive to one party,” he said. “I think for most political parties, the main thing they are generally working toward is getting reelected.… When that’s the primary focus, then sometimes I think you can have a lot of messaging that goes askew, and I think you can have a lot of people who are confused; and folk take advantage of that.”

Though politics drives much of the spread of misinformation, the dramatic shift in the media landscape over the past 15 years is also a significant factor. As humans, we now generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, according to experts at IREX, an organization that promotes media literacy around the globe. That’s equivalent to 250,000 times the content of the Library of Congress every day.

Add to the mix the democratization of information, made possible by Facebook and other social media platforms, and you have a recipe for disaster. The floodgate is now open for anyone with an electronic device to disseminate information across the globe instantly.

While new technology offers countless opportunities to benefit society—virtual church services, for example—most of us, without the guidance of the Holy Spirit and an adequate level of media literacy, are no match for the onslaught of information we encounter daily. The downsizing of reputable news outlets such as newspapers over the past decade has only made matters worse.

One issue that has divided Adventists in recent months is whether the North American Division should officially issue religious exemption letters for church members who do not want to get vaccinated. According to Johnson, a significant amount of misinformation has been circulating within the church community regarding laws that cover religious exemptions from government mandates. He said PARL has been trying to provide church members with accurate information about the law, which is based on personal rather than denominational beliefs. PARL leaders throughout the NAD have helped members write personal religious exemption letters, Johnson said, and that has upset some members who want the letters to be official church statements written on church letterhead.

 “The world church put out a statement in 2015 regarding vaccines, basically saying that we, as a church, are not against reasonable vaccinations, and this is something that, if people choose to do so or choose not to do so, that is up to them,” Johnson said. “However, it’s not something that violates our beliefs.”

He further explained, “The North American Division has also reiterated that we believe in reasonable vaccinations, as well.… We also believe in health care. We believe in science. And so we have no reason to disbelieve what we have been hearing.

“But if you personally have an issue with it, I understand.… We will assist you in trying to protect your rights. That’s really how we’ve been handling it.”

Dr. Vincent Hsu, executive director for infection prevention at the AdventHealth health system, is a 1995 graduate of Loma Linda School of Medicine. Prior to joining the Orlando-based health network 17 years ago, Hsu trained for three years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, learning to detect infectious diseases and protect public health.

Because of misinformation about COVID-19 now circulating in churches and the larger community, Hsu said, many patients reject the medical advice that he and other medical professionals provide. As a result, there has been an uptick in heightened security incidents at various hospitals within the network, according to Hsu, mostly a result of patients and visitors refusing to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

 “We’ve talked to people—patients, visitors, as well as employees—who have expressed their beliefs that they don’t believe that, for example, masks work, or [they believe] vaccinations are not effective or could be harming people,” Hsu said. “I, personally, have had conversations with patients who espouse either a conspiracy theory or misinformation that I have had to try to correct.

“I think this is a huge issue, and I think one of the things that we have had to relearn over this pandemic is an approach to communication that may be different than what we’re used to,” he added. “We recognize that the relationship between the doctor and the patient is built on trust, and it’s built on mutual respect.… It is built on the patients trusting that their doctor understands the science and wants to apply that for the best outcome of the patient. We have seen now where that trust and that relationship has been threatened.”

 “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a number of other famous people. In today’s society, however, it seems the truth doesn’t even have boots and is sitting somewhere in the corner.

It is our job, as Adventist Christians, to be the truth seekers and truth tellers of our generation—even when it is politically, socially, or personally inconvenient. The Bible tells us in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit will guide us “into all truth.” Moreover, it admonishes us in Ephesians 6:14 to stand firm, with the belt of truth buckled around our waists.

Truth, after all, is not a political sport, but a matter of life and death.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, stay vigilant!

Alva James-Johnson is a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

Alva James-Johnson
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