Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy

A common and relatively powerful argument against the validity of Christianity is that its adherents are not noticeably more moral, ethical or good than an average atheist, agnostic or adherent to another faith.[1] Tim Keller[2] frames this objection as follows: “If Christianity is all it claims to be, shouldn’t Christians on the whole be much better people than everyone else?” In the little, rural, Pentecostal community where I came to faith, there was one man in town who was the prototypical example of this problem…my dad. While my father did not claim any kind of formal belief in God, my pastor freely admitted that he was probably the most morally admirable man he knew. This posed the question for me very early, if my father, who rejected his faith in college, could become a better man than my pastor without the aide of Christian resources, had I picked the wrong path?

Some may be tempted to argue that Christians are not as bad as asserted[3] or that others are not as good as claimed.[4] But both of these tacts fall apart. In my opinion, a much more successful approach is to claim that, given the claims and practices of Christianity one would not expect Christians to be morally superior. Keller actually made the provocative claim during his address to Google that, ‘Christianity is the only religion in which the believers do not claim or expect moral superiority to unbelievers.’ I actually believe that a correct understanding of Jesus and the Church would lead one to expect that, if Christianity is true and efficacious, that we might expect Christians to be more annoying, hypocritical and have more moral difficulty than the general population. Paradoxically, I assert that this is a good thing and encapsulates precisely what is beautiful about Christianity. Consider the argument as a series of three assertions.

Assertion 1: We do not all start out on a level playing field morally. Because of our genetics and upbringing, being kind, pure, loving and self controlled will come easier to some of us than others. Goodness does not come as easily to some as it does to others. There is a sense in which goodness acquired through genetics or good parenting is not to one’s credit since it was not through their efforts. This is where Keller’s thinking is particularly clear:

“Good Character is largely attributable to a loving, safe, and stable family environment-conditions for which we were not responsible. Many have had instead an unstable family background and poor role models, and a history of tragedy and disappointment. As a result, they are burdened with deep insecurities, hypersensitivity, and a lack of self-confidence. They may struggle with uncontrolled anger, shyness, addictions, and other difficult results.”[5]

Assertion 2: The gospel does not claim to produce moral perfection or automatically advance everyone to an equivalent moral state. The grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should result in moral improvement…but someone’s current or final moral state is a function, not only of the improvement, but also of the starting point. Therefore, it is true that gratitude for the saving work of Christ should make each Christian more humble, gentle, just, kind, loving, sacrificial etc than they were before, but it does not necessarily mean that on the whole we would be above average because…

Assertion 3: The gospel is more attractive to those of us with more dubious moral starting points. This is the point of much of what Jesus has to say including ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’ and ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’[6] Therefore, the church is full of particularly wicked people[7]. So while the church should be (and is) a place of healing and growth, this progress is painted on a dark ambient canvas. If those most likely to accept the gospel are those most aware of moral failure it would seem to follow that the moral starting point of the standard church member would be well below average. And though we spend our lives trying to live commensurate with the forgiveness already granted us, we continue to fight against biology and patterns set while we were descending into our place of need. Simply put, if the church is full of bad people[8], slowly improving, it should not be shocking that it is not a morally exemplary institution.

This is why Augustine’s favorite metaphor for the church was a hospital. The Church is a place where broken people come to slowly heal. But we are still broken people, disproportionately so. So we say stupid things on Fox news…and we say hurtful things to the homosexual community…and we forget that we are broken and end up pretending that we are better than our non-Christian friends…and we get seduced by political machines…and act indifferent towards the poor and the environment…and we do a wide variety of other things that hurt people and embarrass our Lord. For these things we are deeply sorry and desperately trying to fix. But it does not invalidate the Christian message. It is the precise state of affairs one would expect if Jesus was who he said he was and did what he said he did.

[1] A friend recently subtitled a talk I am doing on this topic: “Why Christians suck.”
[2] My overall argument in this post is strongly influenced by the ‘evangelical yoda.’
[3] Usually this takes the form of differentiating between ‘real Christians’ and posers.
[4] But this ends up with you dissing Gandhi and just sounding silly.
[5] “The Reason For God” p54
[6] Luke 5:31-32 – Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t letting the ‘well’ off the hook. He is subversively challenging the religious people to re-evaluate their own moral sufficiency.
[7] Like me.
[8] Incidentally, these are the only kind of people in the church. The only prerequisite for Christian salvation is relinquishing the claim to being ‘a good person’ and trusting the sacrificial work of Christ to make up for the lack. So, by definition, the Church is full of self-identified bad people.

For a free Mp3 of a talk Keller gave on this topic see: Injustice: Hasn't Christianity been an instrument for oppression? on the "Reason for God" website.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Revenge of the Paste Eaters: The Anatomy of a Swing Voter

The Myth of Undecided Stupidity

I recently took my daughter out for lunch at a local restaurant. With the check they gave me some jelly beans to place in the two jars up front labeled ‘Obama’ and ‘McCain’. To force decisiveness upon me they gave me 5, an odd number, so I could not split my vote. I like John MaCain and Barak Obama each as much as I have cared about any politician. For me it is a dream election. It is the equivalent of the Packers-Broncos Super Bowl (two teams I love) after so many years of Cowboys/Giants/Reskins-Bills (teams I despise, not unlike the last election). I sat there staring at my little gobs of sugar facing a decision 3 months before I was expecting to. Fortunately, on of the beans was cherry, which was delicious, and the two jars then received two apiece.

Of all the labels one can claim there are few that will stimulate such simultaneous rage and fawning as that of ‘undecided voter.’ There are so few of us who are ‘as of yet unaffiliated’[1] that a disproportionate amount of personal and institutional effort is expended to prevail upon our wills. At the same time, party line voters on either side see us as flakey. ‘You already know the voting records’ the argument goes, ‘what helpful information could you possibly still be holding out for?’ The implication (see cartoon) is that serious voters make their decision early based on data and undecideds are swayed by contrived and extraneous considerations like character and charisma.
This was further illustrated by a recent piece on Jon Stewart’s show where John Oliver described the undecided demographic as follows:

John Oliver: As you can see (undecided voters) fall into a variety of categories: Attention Seekers, Racist Democrats, the Chronically Insecure, and right here the Stupid. That is 45% of uncedideds. They are the swingeyest of the swing voters. And they, as they always do, will decide this election.

Stewart: Well that is a fascinating thing. How do you break down the Stupids.

Jon Oliver: Well ironically, it is a rather complex demographic. You’ve got your paste eaters, your numb skulls, your nitwits, your f@#ktards, people’s who’s heads get stuck in jars when they eat pickles, that’s a surprisingly large component, people who loose arguments to babies, douchenozzels, tiger petters…people who jump up and down on frozen lakes when the ice is too thin, shaved gorillas that have somehow acquired driver’s licenses, the voulentarily lobotomized, and, finally, cubs fans.

But implicit in thes assertions, serious and comedic, is the tenuous assumption that the groupings of issues under the headings ‘democrat’ and ‘republican’ are logical outworkings of a pair of unified world views that, between them, describe most Americans. Ironically, it was Jon Stewart (another guy who, at one time, liked both of these candidates[2]) who, in his book, did the best job of deconstructing this myth:

"Together, the two parties function like giant down comforters, allowing the candidates to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought...Each party has a platform, a prix fixe menu of beliefs making up its worldview. The candidate can choos one of two platforms, but remember - no substitutions. For example, do you support universal health care? Then you must also want a ban on assult weapons. Pro-limited government? Congratulations, you are also anti-abortion. Luckily, all human opinion falls neatly nto one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus, the two-party system elegently relflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought."

Conflicting Platforms

Back in primary season, I took one of those internet surveys that asks you a bunch of policy questions and then ranks the candidates based on their correspondence with your policy preferences. Here is how the rankings of the top four came out:


(with Guliani and Romeny at the back of the pack)

Like a surprising number of Xers (and even more millenials) I am a man without a party. Each reflects part of my worldview and values. Now let me be clear. I am NOT a moderate. I am a fanatical liberal…and an unapologetic conservative…just on different issues.

I am an environmentalist who thinks climate change is real and that we should spend gobs of money on alternative energy research.
But[3] I think any energy policy that does not prominently feature nuclear power is deeply flawed and based on fear rather than science.

I support a wide variety of government regulation to protect individuals from the profit motive[4] of corporations.
But I am wary of regulating to the point that innovation is smothered.

I am unapologetically pro-life
But my #1 issue is urban poverty (which indirectly affects the social conditions that make women feel the need to get abortions)

I am a huge supporter of affirmative action
But I think government needs to quantitatively evaluate its social spending and ruthlessly pull the plug on social programs that are not generating the results we expected

I’m a Fed who thinks my job (with many others) is worth tax payer money
But I think there is significant federal and state waste that needs to be cut

Why I like These Guys

In our sad era of cable news and talk radio we define ourselves morally by what we despise. Our fact entertainment industry needs antagonists and protagonists to sell their stories so events are only newsworthy if they highlight conflict. So I could pretty much get a free pass from everyone by claiming to hate both candidates. There is a much larger social penalty for liking a candidate someone hates than for hating a candidate someone likes. But I reject this and by claiming both Obama and McCain I open myself to charges of immorality by most of the country. I was much more popular last time around when I disliked both Bush and Kerry. But here is gist:


McCain was the only shot the republicans had at me. But I knew I’d vote for McCain against anyone but Obama. Only in the dream match up would I be an undecided again. John McCain has been my favorite politician since shortly after the 2000 election. He is a sane conservative who wasn’t beholden to the party and seemed to make decisions based on a healthy ratio of principal and pragmatism. I loved McCain-Feingold and was relieved by the game theory employed by the McCain 13. In fact, if I had to explain in one phrase why I liked John McCain it would have to be that he seems to be principled in precisely the right ways and pragmatic in precisely the right ways.

So I was devastated when he supported the surge. I thought the surge was a terrible idea.[5] I could not believe that McCain would stake his political career on such a desperate and dismal move. I was sad and I kind of made a deal with the ancient senator from Arizona. The surge became a test case. If he was right about this, then his cumalitve record, in my mind, justified his presidency. In my opinion, the surge was an unqualified success, and even as I cast my primary vote for Obama, I suspected McCain would be my November choice.


There are only two kinds of politicians I will consider for president at this point. Someone who supported the Iraq war from the start but clearly would have run it better or someone who opposed it from the start. [5.5]. I admire precisely the same quality in Barak’s opposition to the war as I did in McCain’s support of the surge. Political courage. Putting their political reputation on the line based on what they think is best for my daughter’s future. For me Barak’s opposition to the Iraq war would give him more freedom to manage it and this is his greatest policy advantage.

There are many other liberal issues that I agree with Obama on (see above). In the final count, I align with the left on more issues than the right. But, like McCain, Obama’s greatest assets are not his angles on the issues. I think the United States President’s role is a cultural role more than a political role. In the era of the 24 hour news cycle his rhetoric sets the cultural tone for our country. And Barak offers us a conciliatory oratory. A Kenedyesqe orator that can assuage our fears and reconcile some of our differences. He could be our generation’s Kenedy or Regan, the president that we compare all future presidents to. He could also find himself in way over his head, but if Regan and Schwarzenegger have taught us anything it is that experience is not what makes an executive successful, it is the people he or she surrounds him/herself with.

Post Script: The Choice

So with three weeks left, I am no longer undecided, which is too bad since I was having so much fun deciding if I was a paste eater or a tiger petter. Unfortunately, since the orriginal writing of this piece, my favorite politician, has made the dicision for me. For some reason which mystifies me, McCain has moved right, since he wraped up the primary. I could understand[6] moving right to win the base and then moving left for the general, but MaCain stuck to his unpopular views about drilling, taxes and immigration while he was taking hits from other conservatives and then abandoned these principaled, moderate positions when he was trying to win the middle. I will never understand this. And I’m afraid the selection of Palin (as arguably the most important VP selection in history given McCain's health and age) is just mystifying. She seems like a nice lady. I'd vote for her for mayor. But if the Bush presidency has taught us anything it is that confidence is not a substitute for competence. And, in the end, I just think Barak’s conciliatory rhetoric is what our country needs right now. So I am voting for Obama, but I understand and respect and refuse to demonize the McCain vote and proudly embrace my fellow undecideds. I’d gladly remove the pickle jars from your heads any day.
[1] ref – ‘Brother Where Art Thou’
[2] This, for me, is actually the biggest disappointment of the election. McCain held the record for Daily Show appearances and he and Jon seemed to have a lot of mutual respect and affection. But as soon as McCain got the nomination then Jon turned against him (while basically giving Barak a comedic free pass) proving once and for all that he is not an equal opportunity mocker but a democrat shill.
[3] Or, rather, because of my environmentalism.
[4] Note: I am not using profit motive here as a pejorative. We often talk about the big bad corporations who make decisions soley on the citeria of profit maximization. The thing that bugs me is that most of the people whining about this have 401k’s which means THEY are the corporations. By law, publically held corporations HAVE TO maximize profit. A few companies have remained privately owned for just this reason (e.g. In-and-Out Burger, a faith based business that has a more holistic approach). Thus, non-profit societal values have to be implemented by government regulation.
[5] I know, I also thought Ladamin Tomlinson and Shaq would be flops at the professional level.
[5.5] I am unmoved by the Edwards/Hillary/Kerry argument that 'Bush is a moron but he outsmarted us.' They did not have the political courage to stand up to a the administration when the country was Hawkish. I was depending on them to make that decision on my behalf and they blew it.
[6] Though I loath it.