Saturday, November 04, 2006

A paean to hypocrisy

It's so tempting to pile on when someone like Ted Haggerty, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, falls from grace. Hypocrisy seems to be the only universally recognized sin left to us, and evangelicals, with their tendency towards personality cults, make themselves especially vulnerable to it.

I have noticed several interesting responses to Haggerty's alleged (but, I suspect, real) failings.

The first kind of response is self-righteousness from people who don't like evangelicals. According to Steve Manning at blog On the Right, "The sooner the GOP cleanses itself of these religious nuts and hypocrites the better!" Another species of this (if you can believe it) is blaming Bush. Here is Mark Nicholas's lucid observation at "Hey evangelicals, wake-up. You been Punk'd in the worst way by Bush, the GOP and their buddies."

Hmmm. Wonder what these people were saying during the Clinton scandals.

In fact the Clinton comparison is instructive. Both claimed to be Christian believers, and both, when caught (not quite literally, but almost) with their pants down, claimed not to have inhaled. But there is an important contrast as well. Haggerty apparently has some semblence of shame as evidenced by the fact that he stepped down from his position, whereas Clinton did not. Not that Haggerty doesn't sound more Clintonesque by the day.

And this brings us to the most interesting comment about the scandal, that by P. Z. Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota who runs the Pharyngula blog. Myers despises Haggerty, but is upset at the whole affair. Why? Because Haggerty is going down for the wrong reasons. Listen to his argument:

The bottom line in this business is that Haggard did nothing illegal. He may have cheated on his wife, which is deplorable, but it's an entirely personal issue, not one that we should be concerned about, and not one that should cause him to lose his job. Having sex with someone isn't a crime, and shouldn't be the cause of all of this outrage. Being a moralistic hypocrite is also not an actionable business.

I'm also not too thrilled with Democrats pointing fingers and using this and the Mark Foley case to accuse the Republican party of being a hotbed of corruption and iniquity. These are people (creepy, unpleasant people, perhaps) who had consensual sex with other adults. Stop acting as if this is a sin or an evil—that kind of narrow moral certitude is the other party's schtick! By playing that game, you've been coopted to serve the right-wing's social agenda, reinforcing that homosexuality is a damnable offense.

Why don't we instead see Haggard's sanctimonious lies, his authoritarian propriation of the church for the Republican party, or his ignorance, which he foists off on his congregation as wisdom, as the real crimes here? I really don't care what he does with his ******* in his private life, but that seems to be the major concern of everyone right now.
Well, there goes my theory about hypocrisy being the universally acknowledged sin. Seems even that must be set aside in order to make way for complete sexual license. This brings us to the old maxim that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. There can be no hypocrisy in Myer's world, because there is no virtue.
The presence of hypocrisy is a sign that virtue is still honored. When the consciousness of hypocrisy goes by the wayside, then we will know that we have abandoned virtue. I'll take hypocrisy with my virtue, thank you very much.
I suspect this is what National Review's David Frum was getting at in his post "Hypocrites?" when he compared a case like Haggerty's, in which there was a public profession of virtue and a private life of vice, and another, imaginary case in which the person openly professes his vice and wears his open profession as a virtue.

Frum says the first person is more moral than the second, since, in his hypocrisy, he at least pays his tribute to virtue. Myers would say that the second person is more moral than the first because he is honest, and, besides, the vice he professes is not really vice in the first place, because there is no virtue--except in the open admission of vice.

This recognition of virtue implicit in hypocrisy is the almost universal assumption in the Christian West, as articulated by Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3--thanks to Philip Klein at the American Specator's blog for pointing it out):
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
Hypocrisy, like guilt, is necessarily attendant upon virtue. Woe be unto us if it should ever disappear.

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