Why Has the Critique of Hypocrisy Run Out of Steam?

President Donald Trump recently led a ceremony on National Prayer Day, just a day after his lawyer admitted in a television interview that, contrary to previous declarations, the president had indeed paid off an adult film actress to keep quiet about a purported affair while his third wife was pregnant. Questions about the payment from journalists to the president were met with calls of “shame” by attending evangelicals—shame on the journalists for asking about the affair and payment, not shame on the President for violating his marriage vows and paying for adulterous sex.

So what’s happened to the notion of hypocrisy? Why has the critique of hypocrisy run out of steam?

Examples of hypocrisy are almost endless in the Trump era. As in many areas of politics today, hypocrisy is heavily asymmetrical, its center of gravity being the president’s behavior and statements, that of his white evangelical supporters who seem currently to make up his core base of support, and Republican Party politicians in general.

The instances are so numerous they can’t possibly be catalogued. In just the past couple of weeks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in 2016 took the unprecedented step of refusing his Constitutional duty to consider a president’s nomination for the Supreme Court, complained that Democrats were holding up judicial appointments. Simultaneously, it was revealed that the presidential candidate who repeatedly questioned Hilary Clinton’s health had dictated his doctor’s letter attesting to him being “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, defended President Trump, arguing that his affair with Stormy Daniels was “nobody’s business”—even though he had argued 20 years previously in a Wall Street Journal editorial that “Mr. Clinton’s months-long extramarital sexual behavior in the Oval Office now concerns him and the rest of the world, not just his immediate family.” One gets the idea.

And yet the act of pointing out these acts of hypocrisy has no effect. The critique of hypocrisy has been exhausted and no longer carries moral force. Through force of habit many still do it. But it seems singularly fruitless. What has happened?

The target is not the audience

We should in fact be surprised by this turn of events. After all, the prophetic figure at the center of Christianity was a master critic of moral hypocrisy, a sensibility that now seems all but lost on his white evangelical followers. Jesus questioned those who sought to morally discipline their fellows while themselves falling prey to greater sin: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matt 7.5).

The gospel writers chose for Jesus’s critique a ready word from ancient Greek drama: hupokristia meant to act on stage, to perform a role. At the heart of the notion of hypocrisy, then, might be the idea of pretense: of pretending to be what one is not. This was fine for actors when performing in a play—we laud them for excellence in pretense. But it wasn’t so good for the real world. All the world might be a stage, and humans merely players, but Jesus’s critique seemed to suggest that some were acting for the purpose of deceiving their fellow actors, or even God himself.

The critique of hypocrisy as a rhetorical weapon is indigenous to the Christian tradition, even to the point of being serviceable in the critique of other Christians. A famous American example was launched by Christian abolitionists against Christian slaveholders. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of a Slave is premised on this critique of hypocrisy, his belief that you couldn’t possibly be loving your neighbor as yourself as you simultaneously bought, sold, manacled, starved, raped, whipped, and tortured that neighbor.

Jesus’ critique of the pretense of piety was central to Douglass’s rhetorical strategy. Douglass ended his memoir with a parody of a hymn focused on this Christian hypocrisy:

‘Love not the world,’ the preacher said,
And winked his eye, and shook his head;
He seized on Tom, and Dick, and Ned,
Cut short their meat, and clothes, and bread,
Yet still loved heavenly union.

Another preacher whining spoke
Of One whose heart for sinners broke:
He tied old Nanny to an oak,
And drew the blood at every stroke,
And prayed for heavenly union.

But Douglass’ critique of Christian hypocrisy alerts us to an important limitation of the rhetoric, one that goes to the heart of why the critique of hypocrisy appears to have run out of steam in the era of Trump-supporting white evangelicals: the target is not the audience.

Douglass’s criticism of the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders, after all, probably almost never convinced those Christian slavers to give up their ways and manumit their slaves. But his critique of them wasn’t for them. Rather, while his Narrative had as its target those he saw as Christian hypocrites, his audience was mostly Northern abolitionists, or Northern Christians on the fence about the morality of slavery, whose anger at the peculiar institution he hoped to stoke with a recollection of his born-again master who was wont to tie up a female slave and whip her while citing Jesus’s line “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (see Luke 12.47). Ominously, it wasn’t this abolitionist Christian critique of hypocrisy that ended slavery, but the Civil War.

This target/audience distinction was probably true for the most part of Jesus’s founding rhetorical practice. This apocalyptic prophet was likely not imagining that his critique of hypocrisy was going to get the hypocrites of his time to reorient their lives toward God and the coming kingdom that he and his followers imminently expected. Rather, they were a counter-example for his real audience to consider: the importance of our inner morality and the falseness of pretense.

Our old friend self-deception

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.

As then, so now

In his famous “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Bruno Latour argues that the critical philosophy that had sought to reveal the “social construction of scientific facts” was now finding its methods and conclusions used to support “artificially maintained controversies”—such as with the idea that the science of anthropogenic climate change is not a settled consensus. It’s not that—to use his example—Republican politicians and strategists had become convinced of critical theory’s questioning of how scientific knowledge is produced. It’s that their desire to undercut the “realist attitude” and their love of uncertainty about the true had appeared to strangely dovetail with some postmodern theorists. (Kurt Andersen recently made a similar argument, though he gets the causation wrong.)

Latour’s point was that critique had run out of steam because we were witnessing its bad faith co-option by political forces intent on muddying the difference between the true and the false, on questioning the premise of what was called, in another context, “the reality-based community.” The critique of hypocrisy has run out of steam for a similar reason. The higher and shared moral principles on which the critique of hypocrisy rests are wielded by bad faith actors who do not themselves share the principles.

Like knowledge and facts themselves in our post-truth era, moral principles derive from group identity. For many conservatives, knowledge circulates in what David Roberts calls a “tribal epistemology.” Facts and principles are not higher than the group; they have become subordinated to the Christianized Republican Party, which has its own institutions of media circulation and its own rules for who within the group can deploy a moral principle.

The situation is asymmetrical in that one side generally sees mainstream, professional journalism as the referee calling the game, as it were, based on the ‘rules’ of objective facts and higher moral principles. But the other side has learned to ‘play the ref,’ and generally doesn’t see the ref as the source of either objective facts or an entity with the standing to invoke higher, shared moral principles.

Thus Democrats (rightly) continue to be vulnerable to the critique of sexual assault, a claim to higher moral principles that cost Al Franken his job. Republicans were quite happy to call on those moral principles—in bad faith—to critique Franken, removing a powerful political opponent. But counter-claims to this higher principle aimed at the president have found no ground in the in-group because the facts and the principles were established only outside the group identity, by outsiders without standing.

The Christian Right maintains not just an identity-based epistemology, but an identity-based morality as well. America is experiencing not just an epistemic crisis, but a moral crisis too; facts and principles are malleable political weapons for the Republican Christian Right, to be taken up and discarded as needed.

The question of what might resolve these crises, restoring a world of shared facts and principles, is actually the question of what might bring the Christian Right to recognize higher truths and higher moral principles. That probably won’t happen.

What can happen—and probably is already happening—is that young people might recognize the continuing bad faith and self-deception of much of the Christian Right. They might choose one by one to recognize shared facts and the shared higher morality that makes the critique of hypocrisy possible. And they might walk away from the faith communities that support these things, emptying the pews. Polling suggests this kind of backlash against the Christian Right may already be happening. Perhaps only in this way, one by one, does the critique of hypocrisy have a little steam left after all.