Nobody’s perfect. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul wrote to a Christian community in Rome. It’s an important verse in American evangelical Christianity. Because all have sinned, evangelicals say, all need to repent and receive grace and forgiveness.
What looms large in evangelical Christianity also looms large in American conservatism. And in the past few years, the political right has used our common imperfection to muddle a range of moral issues. Christian conservatives, white supremacists, and Trump apologists have all said that humans’ universal fallibility makes it impossible to distinguish between greater and lesser sins. And so their heroes’ sins are no worse than anyone else’s.
But justice demands making moral distinctions. The political right’s sloppy truisms are absolving wrongdoers and legitimating injustice.
A few days after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, one participant, Peter Cvjetanovic, conceded that white European culture “is not perfect; there are flaws to it, of course.” He said the same about Robert E. Lee, whose statue was the demonstrators’ rallying point: “He wasn’t a perfect man, but I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time.” Never mind that what made Lee imperfect was that he stood for and fought to uphold large-scale injustice.
Most often, people on the right claim nobody’s perfect in order to justify the words and actions of President Donald Trump. A year ago Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., waved away then-candidate Trump’s boast about committing sexual assault, which was recorded during a 2005 “Access Hollywood” interview, by saying, “We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.” Trump himself admits he’s “no angel.” No president is, but few if any have lied, insulted, or put personal gain at odds with the national interest as persistently as he has.
Early in Trump’s presidency, he dismissed concerns about politically-motivated murders in Vladimir Putin’s Russia by saying, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?” For a president dogged by investigations into potentially illegal ties to Russia, it’s convenient to say that ethically speaking, we’re all the same.
Conor Friedersdorf rightly calls out the “moral nihilism” of Trump’s defenders. It’s “as if unapologetically acknowledging moral depravity lessens its weight,” Friedersdorf writes. A coat of “nobody’s perfect” can turn guilt into innocence, hatred into tough love, sin into virtue.
Unless you’re black and run afoul of the police or courts. Then, “no angel” can quickly become “thug.” By the same logic, rape victims were “asking for it” and poor mothers being evicted for reporting domestic abuse “made bad choices.”
Trump wrote in 2014 that the Central Park Five—black men falsely convicted of rape as teenagers in 1989 who then won a $41 million settlement from the City of New York—should not be considered innocent because they “do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” By his own admission, then, Trump is no different from these men. But he sees little need to repent.
In the moral vacuum Christian conservatives are helping create, Robert E. Lee’s imperfections (leading an army against the United States in order to preserve slavery) don’t bring him dishonor. Peter Cvjetanovic’s imperfections (joining a torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans) don’t represent who he really is. “I’m not the angry racist” he appears to be in an iconic photo, he said. “As a white nationalist, I care for all people.”
Philando Castile’s imperfections, however (legally owning a gun and having what the officer who killed him called a “wide set nose” that made him resemble a robbery suspect), got him killed. Michael Brown’s imperfections made him “an animal” who had to be “put down” in the middle of a Ferguson street. Castile’s killer was found not guilty of manslaughter. Brown’s was never charged.
It’s true that we’re all imperfect. We can redeem that knowledge from this cruel double standard if we use it to reckon with moral luck and to correct injustice. A short speech featured in the current season of the Netflix documentary series, Last Chance U, points the way.
“I ain’t living no perfect life,” says Jay Johnson, a tall young man with long braids and a sharp chin, to his friends in a dark parking lot. “You ain’t living no perfect life. We ain’t living no perfect life.” While he’s speaking, someone chimes in, “Nobody’s perfect, man.”
This conversation among young black men occurs right after a weeknight bible study among football players at East Mississippi Community College. EMCC is where players go to get their academic, athletic, and personal lives back on track after getting kicked out of powerhouse programs like Florida State and Auburn. Some are there because they used drugs. One was charged with burglary. Another punched a woman in a bar.
Football players spout self-serving platitudes all the time. “No relationship is perfect” is how Ray Rice explained the video of him striking his then-fiancee in an elevator in 2014. But Johnson isn’t trying to justify himself. He doesn’t use our shared imperfection to paint over his sins. He says he was “bad” in early high school, but he isn’t at EMCC to bounce back from being kicked off a team. He came to qualify academically for a scholarship to a big-time football school.
He’s making a different point—about injustice and unmerited grace. Comparing himself to a “close cousin” he grew up with who’s now in prison he says, “every time you seen him, you seen me.” Johnson says that God “keeps blessing” him and he wants to understand why. He says he wants to live right.
There are real moral distinctions that rightly entail distinct consequences. Some people really do commit crimes and belong in prison.
But some people go to jail for things that others get away with. Others kill in broad daylight and go free. Still others get monuments in their honor despite rejecting the American experiment. If we want justice, we have to insist on moral clarity. And we have to reject the theology that prevents it.