Sometimes I wonder if calling out so-called “Christian leaders” in the age of Trump for their hypocrisy is a waste of my time.
Christopher Douglas teaches English at the University of Victoria. Over at Religion Dispatches he reflects, using Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, as to why the critique of hypocrisy may have “run out of steam” in American life. There is a lot to think about in this piece.
Here is a taste:
But the hypocrisy we witness today may not be so much acts of pretense and public false performance as self-deception. In Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations, Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer suggest that our perception of hypocrisy has shifted in modern times. If Biblical and Medieval thinkers saw hypocrisy primarily as a matter of pretense, of the difference between the inner morality and outward performance, modern thinking has recognized a greater psychological complexity of self-deception: our human capability of fooling ourselves, of shunning information inimical to our beliefs, of avoiding moral self-introspection.
This was actually Douglass’s assessment of some of his Christian masters. As he says of one slave “breaker” to whom he was leased for a year, “Poor man! such was his disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God; and this, too, at a time when he may be said to have been guilty of compelling his woman slave to commit the sin of adultery.” In Douglass’s view, Christian slaveholders were often as much subjects of self-deception as they were self-conscious frauds.
Douglass’s Christian slavers were the ancestors, in theology and church tradition, if not in actual family genealogy, of today’s Christian Right. Although the popular tale of the political empowerment of white evangelicals has it that they were reacting against Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution, a more complete history includes the early Christian Right’s energization by anti-Civil Rights politics. These Christian Segregationists—like the early Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones Sr.—had their heritage in the Christian Slavery that Douglass had targeted in his critique a century before.
Why this matters is that it gives us a clue as to why the critique of hypocrisy has run out of steam: it never had much steam to begin with if we think of it as a method for correcting individual behavior. The reason the target was not the audience for Douglass is that there was almost no chance Christian slavers were going to listen to the moral and theological reasoning of an escaped slave. In this sense, from the Christian slaveholders’ point of view, Douglass didn’t have the authority to make a moral claim on them. He was an outsider to their group and, moreover, deemed to be morally (and, not incidentally, racially) inferior to them.
Read the entire piece here.