Hypocrites Among Us

One thing we can take from Jesus’ censure of the scribes and Pharisees as recorded in Mt 23:23 and Luke 11:42 is that they most certainly did not consider themselves hypocrites as Jesus said, or guilty of neglecting the “weightier matters” of justice and mercy, faith and love. Their problem with Jesus was that he simply would not accept that their totalizing institutions of religion and their leadership of them were virtuous, authentic, loyal, exemplary, sincere, authoritative, and most of all, lawful.

What is interesting is that most Christians nowadays hold that, in this contestation, Jesus was correct in his assessment of his adversaries. But that means those who thought themselves right were in fact wrong, so these religious elite must have been functioning in some form of denial or false consciousness or just plain self-deception. Holding that Jesus was in the right is tantamount to acknowledging that those who regard themselves as the true custodians and protectors of a dominant religious system can simply be mistaken, that their notions of justice, mercy, faith and love are corrupt, and that the behavior they suppose is expressive of these virtues is a mockery.

Whatever the scribes and Pharisees may have believed regarding justice and mercy, the fact of the matter is that they weren’t doing them, at least not by any measure that counted to Jesus. That should give pause to those of us who claim to believe in Jesus and justice.

With some fear and trepidation, I want to suggest that there is some evidence to support the idea that Christians and their leaders in general are more like the scribes and Pharisees in the story here than we have heretofore thought.

Though it is a bit of a generalization, I nonetheless think that Christians truly want their faith to matter in their lives. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they want their journey of faith to be authentic and sincere and to love God with all their heart, mind and strength. This is admirable indeed, and with humility I count myself among them. From an ethical standpoint, Christians hold that faith ought to inform the choices made and the actions taken in all areas of life.

But it is just here that things get complicated. Christians may want their faith to relate to their decision-making and behavior, but the way from faith to decisions and actions is not as straightforward as some might like. At some point in Western history (probably, as most scholars believe, in conjunction with the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment), Christianity became less a religion of doing and more a religion of believing. By this I mean that Christianity’s focus on defining, defending and enforcing a set of beliefs became more important than performing religious duties of charity and compassion for one’s fellow citizens. Correct belief, or orthodoxy, became more important because it was thought that correct conduct could not follow from any but correct belief. There has never been anything like a single set of beliefs that were universally regarded as normative for all Christians, (theological and cultural diversity existed from the beginning, and there is indication of that in Christian scriptures), but for the last few centuries Western Christianity has been constituted by various Christianities, each of which defines and defends a particular set of beliefs. We are now provoked even to ask: Is Christianity a matter of believing or of doing? Can one do right without believing, and can one truly believe without doing?

It is an important fact that historically and culturally we have spun off believing and doing from one another; this has left us with some peculiar effects as a society and a religion in the United States. For example, we have separated religion from its public domain by privatizing faith and emphasizing the freedom of personal choice. Unlike our scribe and Pharisee friends, who functioned in an effective monopoly of religion, we live in a civil democracy that acknowledges the existence of multiple religions though it protects none from the market of religious options available. Christianity now is less a totalizing way of life in human society and more a matter of choice.

Behind this situation in our context are the Reformation’s emphasis on personal faith and salvation, and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human beings as naturally free and rational creatures. With these forerunners, we view our society as an aggregation of free rational individuals whose autonomy cannot be infringed and whose freedom to pursue their own interests is to be protected by a legitimate government. In the view of John Locke, the English philosopher whose political ideas exercised considerable influence on our founders, religious organizations are voluntary associations of individuals. In the face of the proliferation of and conflicts between “denominations” in the seventeenth century, conflicts related less to the doing of religion and more to the different systems of belief, Locke argued in A Letter Concerning Toleration, saying, “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” Thus, religious liberty, and by extension, religious pluralism, can be seen as the fruit of personal, rational choices of individuals. Laws of religious liberty do not grant this freedom so much as acknowledge the prior “natural” existence of this freedom.

And yet, interestingly enough, as Locke surveyed the “different professions of religion,” he observed that each with its claim to antiquity and genuine discipline was merely contending for supremacy in power and rule in human society. Like Jesus with the scribes and Pharisees, Locke could pronounce a word of censure: “Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself.”

One other effect of the separation of believing and doing is the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion.” Many who express disfavor with religion nonetheless acknowledge an interest in things spiritual. Such persons tend to be quite critical of “organized” or “institutional” religion because of its seeming inflexibility, authority, and power to enforce some degree of homogeneity.

Much to be preferred is the freedom to chart one’s own course in matters of the heart, mind, and spirit; this provides the impetus to a more individualized and more eclectic quest for meaning, whether or not it is transcendent in origin or nature. Spirituality thus becomes an individually-tailored belief system to guide one in the pursuit of self-realization. Cultivating one’s own spirituality and connection to ultimacy does not necessarily entail performing any social act or adopting any social ethic. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his book After Heaven, calls this transition from religion to spirituality the move from “dwelling” to “seeking.’

In turn, this distinction between spirituality and religion has led to what Grace Davie, in her book The Sociology of Religion, has referred to as “believing without belonging.” Individuals who are disenchanted with more conventional forms and practices of religion continue to affirm in some sense a set of distinctive religious attitudes and beliefs, but exercise their personal choice not to be connected to or a participant in any otherwise recognizable form of religious community or organization. Unfettered by institutional authority or creed, one may consider himself or herself as an adherent, or follower, or believer whose religious social needs are self-met or fulfilled somewhat impersonally by the use of technology (TV, radio, internet, etc.). All the while such a believer exercises his or her own individual choice with regard to whether doing one’s religion is, in any way, germane to one’s believing, and if it is, what is actually done is left to the individual to determine and justify.

It is here that we meet again the problem Jesus identified in his encounter with the scribes and Pharisees. Though they were spiritual and religious, believing and belonging, they were nonetheless complicit in setting aside the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, faith and love. Their preoccupation with less made it possible for them to disregard more. Instead of doing these things, they exercised a degree of autonomy to choose what was, and what was not morally required of them to legitimate their claim to faithfulness, and thus their claim to authority and status as leaders. Like many of our modern-day Christians, they retained the right to choose for themselves what was and what was not to be believed, and what was and what was not to be done as expressive both of that belief and of justice and mercy, faith and love.

This disconnect between beliefs and values on the one hand, and behavior expressive of these beliefs and values on the other, has been a conundrum for Christians from the very beginning. It’s part of our contribution to the notion of sin. The incongruity of beliefs and behavior is itself an ethical matter because, as the exposure of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees illustrates, self-deception and dissembling are widespread. Indeed, in our own time, sociologist Mark Chaves has remarked that this lack of consistency between religious beliefs, attitudes, values, and behavior is so widespread that it is in fact the norm. In his recent article in the March 2010 issue of the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, he contends that to suppose this consistency between beliefs and behavior to exist is really to commit what he calls the “religious congruence fallacy.” What is met more commonly is an inability—or unwillingness—to align one’s beliefs and behaviors. Chaves’ primary point is that sociologists of religion can no longer assume that the measured behavior is the effect of religious beliefs, or that holding certain religious beliefs will necessarily entail their expression in behavior. Remarkably, the opposite is the case; an inquirer must assume inconsistency.

The lesson of the scribes and the Pharisees, then, is deeply troublesome: religious self-assessment and regard for those who hold a similar set of beliefs and practices may actually reveal a feigning of religiosity. Thus, it should come as no surprise, for example, that a national survey taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that only a tiny number of Americans, who claim their religion is important, are led by their religious views to their position on such matters as immigration, the death penalty, poverty, the environment, and governmental assistance to the poor. Faith matters on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, but considerably less so in these other areas.

That one’s religious sensibilities—convictions and commitments—are distinct from, and unrelated to, certain realities faced by our fellow citizens begs the question of what justice and mercy, faith and love can mean in other than our own personal spaces. The fact of incongruity raises the specter of hypocrisy, so we too must examine the ways we mitigate what might just be our personal, social, and religious responsibility to execute justice and mercy, faith and love.

Perhaps, at best, the incongruence of belief and behavior can reveal what Leon Festinger calls “cognitive dissonance,” or the psychological tension produced by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously, like believing in justice and mercy, and believing that one is not called to pursue either in a public world. But it is possible for beliefs and behaviors to change in order to relieve the inner tension.

At worst, the incongruence signifies hypocrisy, and we probably know the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” He is undoubtedly a better model for doing justice and mercy than the scribes and Pharisees.

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