Moral Hypocrisy

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Christians in America find themselves confronted with many dilemmas in their faith when they approach conversations about morality and politics in their country. Many of the most bitterly disputed subjects in modern American politics have significant moral dimensions; politicians and their party apparata seek to tribalize moral positions, intending to maintain voter loyalty through group identity and fear of “the other.” At the same time, American media sensationalizes matters of morality and disagreements about what ought to be done about them in order to gain and maintain viewership; social media algorithms prioritize “hot takes,” reductive memes, and inflammatory speech. It proves far too easy for Christians to get swept up into these trends and become more faithful to a partisan political/cultural tribe than to the transnational Kingdom of Jesus; we are sorely tempted to buy into the fearmongering and demonization which all but defines modern American political discourse.

One disheartening manifestation of these difficulties involves the open embrace of arguments of moral hypocrisy. For political partisans, pointing out the moral hypocrisy of their opponents is a cheap and easy hit; the purpose might ostensibly be for their opponents to see their hypocrisy and repent, yet it generally is designed to reinforce the political posture of their fellow partisans: “we are right and they are wrong.” Unfortunately, arguments of moral hypocrisy are easily reduced to their core posture: our moral compromises are superior to the moral compromises of our opponents.

We can clearly see arguments regarding moral hypocrisy in one of the most fraught issues of our time: the valuation of life in our society. Accusations of moral hypocrisy on the issue fly about easily and everywhere, and end up consuming almost every political issue of note:

  • “They rail against children in cages but have no problem with abortion!”
  • “They say they are ‘pro-life’ about babies yet have no problem putting children in cages!”
  • “Sorry, but I don’t listen to anti-gun lectures from those who think it’s okay to kill a baby.”
  • “Those people care more about their guns than they do about people.”
  • “Liberals say they care about black people, yet are fine with slaughtering black babies.”
  • “Conservatives say they care about black babies in the womb, but have no problem with the oppression of black people outside of the womb.”
  • “Don’t talk to me about welfare until you care about the welfare of the unborn!”
  • “Those who are so concerned about the life of the unborn don’t seem to care so much about those who are born and in need.”

Such arguments attempting to denounce the moral hypocrisy of one’s opponents may feel satisfying, yet ultimately prove fallacious and unproductive. These arguments lack appropriate nuance and empathy, prove highly reductive, and accomplish nothing of value. They are not designed to convince but reinforce, and what they reinforce can neither advance the Kingdom of God in Christ nor even the moral issue under discussion. Ultimately, the only thing an argument regarding moral hypocrisy proves is the moral compromise and hypocrisy of the one making the argument. Christians, therefore, have no business making, advocating, or identifying with arguments rooted in moral hypocrisy.

You may find that judgment harsh; should not Christians speak some word of truth regarding moral and political issues of the day, and is not the moral inconsistency of opponents a valid ground of argument? Christians in the twenty-first century do well to recognize that the wall between the “secular” and “sacred” in our society was not built by God but was erected in the Enlightenment; if the Kingdom of God is so heavenly focused it has no earthly good, the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven is for naught (cf. Matthew 6:10). Christians must never forget that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation, and it is not advanced through the coercive power of the nation-state (Romans 1:16); at the same time, the authorities of the nation-state are empowered to maintain justice on the earth, and justice includes a defense for the oppressed and marginalized (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18; cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). As Christians must be in the world but not of the world (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, 1 John 2:15-17), so Christians must speak a word of life from the Gospel regarding the value of life and to speak that word of life and truth to power, but must always do so according to the embodied witness of Jesus, in love, humility, empathy, compassion, and sacrifice (1 Peter 3:15).

In the world in civil society there will be moral compromises, and thus moral hypocrisy, as participants in a nation-state deliberate about freedom, morality, and the coercive force of the nation-state. Participants in a nation-state have to decide when the coercive power of the nation-state ought to be brought to bear to require or demand a particular course of action and thus to inhibit the freedom of its citizens, and when the nation-state should not apply its coercive power but rely on the moral consciences of its citizens to seek what is the best and the good, maintaining the freedom of its citizens. In a healthy conversation, citizens should be able to disagree in good faith about exactly how that coercive force of the nation-state should be applied without having their views and attitudes maligned and slandered.

Conversations about matters of life in America today prove unhealthy. Partisan tribes freely participate in moral reductionism and demonization of the other, as seen in the instances of arguing from moral hypocrisy. We may expect this in the world, but it ought not be so among Christians.

There are some people in America who truly do celebrate killing babies in the womb. Likewise, there are some people in America who truly have no moral qualms with putting immigrant children in cages. There are some people who would ban all the guns they can find; there are others who all but worship their guns and the freedom to maintain them. There are some unabashed eugenicists in America; there are some who think the poor, sick, and oppressed should never receive any kind of assistance or help whatsoever. There are always people in the extremes, but they do not speak for the majority of Americans. To use the extremes to malign a large swathe of fellow Americans, and to assume that those on the extreme speak for everyone who may maintain a similar sympathy, is ugly, wrong, and slanderous.

Most Americans, and hopefully all Christians, recognize the ugliness, difficulty, and complications in these issues. A good number of people in the “pro-choice” movement are not the most comfortable with abortion, especially as the child is in the second or third trimester; I have only met a handful of people who profess Jesus and think that abortion is not sinful. The primary two concerns of the “pro-choice” movement involve freedoms and the health of women and concern about governmental intervention in those freedoms and rights. A good number of people who are “anti-abortion” are truly “pro-life,” and do care for the health and rights of women, but emphasize the value of the life of the unborn child and insist on its full personhood. Unfortunately, as our society retreats into hardened political camps, each camp falls into its extremes: the “pro-choice” become far more comfortable than they should with the dehumanization of life in the womb and thus its desecration, and the “anti-abortion” become far more comfortable than they should with their idolization of the unborn to the detriment of the welfare of their mothers. Both sides get comfortable in their silos and trenches, completely convinced of the ugliness and moral bankruptcy of their opponents. Caricatures of the ugliest face of each side get torn apart while the best arguments for each are left untouched.

What if we sought to actually reason with one another about matters involving life? To do so we cannot just accept the caricatured argument regarding the worst of the opponents; we have to at least try to understand what they believe and why, and give a hearing to their best argument. To this end, abortion is discussed in greater depth elsewhere; Caitlin Flanagan’s treatment of the subject in The Atlantic is essential reading to understand why the issue is so difficult and polarizing.

Arguments regarding moral hypocrisy might make each partisan side feel better about themselves, smug in their moral superiority, and yet all they have done is demonstrated the moral compromise which has been made. Arguments regarding moral hypocrisy are self-defeating, because as we have seen above, each argument regarding moral hypocrisy can simply be reversed. No one is any better off afterward. Everyone feels smug and superior to the other, and the gnawing and gaping hole in our society remains. People find themselves more alienated from each other than they were before.

Furthermore, what is most appealing about the moral hypocrisy argument is what is most disgusting about them: the presumption that the opponent has a moral character and ostensibly appealing to them to be more consistent. But in the sensationalism, partisanship, and “memeification” of such arguments, they end up both shaming the opponent for having a moral conscience about a matter and denigrating the moral dimension of the issue more favorable to the opponent. And this is precisely why Christians specifically should never countenance arguments of moral hypocrisy: we should be appealing to people’s consciences to be more aligned with Jesus, not shaming them for their views, and not one of us can stand before God and expect to be declared in the right when we have compromised the morality embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Scriptures God is the Author and Sustainer of life; Christians must recognize and honor all life as gifts from the Creator and act as a faithful steward of them according to His purposes (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Timothy 6:13, Hebrews 1:1-3, 1 Peter 4:10). Christians therefore ought to maintain a broad “pro-life” posture: they ought to advocate for the life of the unborn, and for the lives of those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized, and those who look differently than they do (Galatians 2:10, 6:10). Even when Christians affirm the right of the nation-state to exact vengeance on evildoers (Romans 13:1-7), Christians should insist on the shared humanity of even those who have broken the law, visit those in prison, not wish for the death of anyone, and pray that all might be saved (Ezekiel 33:11, Matthew 25:31-46, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Even when Christians affirm the sovereignty of the nation-state to decide who to allow to immigrate and who should not, Christians should wish for their nation-state to treat those in its care as fellow human beings made in the image of God, and not as animals. Christians understand humans have dominion over the creation, yet should recognize that dominion should not mean wanton destruction and devaluation of the creation which God made (Genesis 1:26-28). As Christians can rightly see how those who are “pro-choice” seem willing to sacrifice children on the altar of the freedom of women, they should be able to also see how others seem willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent people on the altar of the freedom to bear arms; if they recoil at the force of the latter argument, they should prove less comfortable with the former, or accept the truth of the latter if the former is indeed true. If at any time we start resisting the “pro-life” side of any argument because it is proving embarrassing or uncomfortable to a particular partisan political or social posture, we are resisting the faith and conforming to partisan culture.

Thus, as Christians, we should celebrate wherever life is being honored and valued, and be thankful for that. And we should prove willing to point out where life is not being valued, and be willing to participate in reasoned discussion with grace and mercy as to why life should be more valued. We should give those with whom we speak the benefit of the doubt and think of them as charitably as we can, seeking to truly understand what they believe and why, and to show grace, warmth, and love in our discussion. If we do so, we might see that there is far more held in common than we might have imagined; we may even learn or revise some of our postures based upon what we gain from others. Perhaps we may change the views of those with whom we communicate; if nothing else, they will hopefully see the love and light of Christ in our conversation and posture. And this will prove true about any moral issue regarding which anyone is tempted to call out moral hypocrisy.

But if we reduce everything to matters of moral hypocrisy, we shut all those doors and demonstrate ourselves to be closed-minded and uncharitable. If all we can do is think of reasons why our moral compromises are superior to the moral compromises of others, or seek to find ways to caricature, dehumanize, or demonize others for their views on such matter, we are thinking in worldly and demonic ways, and not according to the godly wisdom we are to obtain from above (James 3:13-18). If all we do is point out the moral hypocrisy of others, others will just point our own moral hypocrisy (Matthew 7:1-4). May we all seek to embody Jesus in our engagement in the politics of our society, and give the Accuser no ground against us before God or our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Moral Hypocrisy

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