Hyperbole is a rhetorical trope for exaggerating the truth. Donald Trump defines his lies as “truthful hyperbole” – an obvious oxymoron. In The Art of the Deal, Trump calls “truthful hyperbole” an “innocent form of exaggeration.” Trump is the master of hyperbole, and no one falls harder for Trump hyperbole than the press.
Here’s Trump, in his own words, telling everyone exactly what his con game is: “One of the things I have learned about the press is that they are always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better… The point is that if you are a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you… That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. I play to people’s fantasies… People want to believe that something is the biggest and greatest and the most spectacular.” And there you have it. Trump admits to playing to the evangelical fantasy of a world they can control and a nation they can impose their strict moralism on in every corner of the culture.
The rapid increase of hyperbole in preaching and politics suggests that sustained arguments, reasoning, democratic discourse, and truth are endangered by a species of hound: The Hyperbole Hound. I can’t tell which came first, evangelical preachers using hyperbole or politicians, but what I do understand is that both preachers and politicians have become a pack of ravenous, howling hounds that put the hounds of Baskerville to shame. From thousands of available examples of evangelical hyperbole, here are a handful of examples:
Creationist leaders making a career out of hyperbolic attacks on evolution are a dime a dozen. The loudest, most obnoxious, and least intellectually credible of this group has to be the Creation Museum’s own Ken Ham. When it comes to hyperbole, it is hard to top Ham. I am always tempted to call him “Hyperbole” Ham, but I won’t do that. Ham, for example, claims that America’s slide into immorality, liberalism, and unbelief has only one cause: evolution. In this book, The Lie: Evolution, Ham blames abortion, homosexuality, lawlessness, and even racism on evolution.
Nothing says hyperbole like the pronouncements of rapture-believing, dispensationalist preachers like Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas. Jeffress holds nothing back in his hyperbolic fits. In his books, Twilight’s Last Gleaming and Countdown to Apocalypse, Jeffress unleashes polluted rivers of hyperbole. From his insistence that “America’s demise is inevitable” to his belief that Jesus will return in his lifetime, Jeffress never met a piece of hyperbole he would not use to gain emotional adherence to his beliefs.
In the Hyperbole Hall of Shame, I would be remiss not to give honorable mention to America’s most visible fake historian, David Barton. For years Barton has regaled his adoring audiences with the absurd claim that the decline in student SAT scores was directly related to the Supreme Court ruling on no prayer in schools. Barton ignores that the Supreme Court neither threw God out of public schools nor eliminated prayer. As one prominent Baptist defender of the First Amendment put it, “God has never missed a day of school.”
The politicians rival the preachers in the hyperbole factory. Marjorie Taylor Greene called Republicans voting for the infrastructure bill, “Traitors.” Then she sent a tweet: “Here are the ‘Republicans’ that just voted to help Biden screw America.” As if she couldn’t help herself, she then bragged on the 6 Democrats who voted against Biden’s bill: “They have more balls than these R’s.” She continued, “Republicans who hand over their voting card to Nancy Pelosi to pass Biden’s Communist takeover of this country must be eliminated.”
“RINOS just passed this wasteful $1.2 trillion dollar ‘infrastructure’ bill,” Lauren Boebert tweeted late Friday night. “Pelosi did not have the votes in her party to pass this garbage. Time to name names and hold these fake republicans accountable.” Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., added to the backlash, calling colleagues who voted for the bill “spineless” on Twitter. “I can’t believe Republicans just gave the Democrats their socialism bill,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tweeted.
Who let the hyperbole hounds out of the pen? Well, they are loose, and they are howling at the moon. Somewhere the hounds have been taught to howl only one basic message: “communists.” This tired old trope has been around since the end of WWII and yet the howl of “communism” makes one wonder if Joe McCarthy has been raised from the dead.
Rhetorical scholar, James Darsey shows that the disinterment of McCarthy is a terrible mistake. He writes that “McCarthy left a powerful legacy as a great demagogue and witchhunter, a legacy that continues to haunt political discourse today… [He] could not be discredited or argued against because he took no positions. He presented his audience with a sustained moment of hesitation and wonder in which every claim on credulity was offset by a denial of its legitimacy. In the process of creating this fantastic world, a certain ethos was created, an ethos that ultimately overshadowed and conquered its creator.”
One can only hope that Darsey is correct because hyperbole doesn’t help democracy. It distorts truth, creates mistrust, and undermines the political process. When the hyperbole hounds howl, throw them a biscuit, but never fall for their emotional outbursts of exaggeration and lies.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).