How do we reconcile the moral values we endorse with behavior that contradicts it? Do we even bother? Are we able to claim a set of moral values and ignore them at the same time? Can we comfortably apply them to one person, but not to another, and find no conflict in doing so? I’ve been in an interesting conversation with a church going man I know only in passing. It began with his assertion that the current president is exactly the tough love parent the nation needs to straighten out our childish dependency on government largesse that has weakened the spirit of self reliant American individualism. Somewhere along the line he asked who I had voted for. Clinton, I said, and while I have a deep distrust of political dynasties, she was eminently qualified for the job. It unleashed the usual cascade accusations: emails, a corrupt foundation, Bill’s infidelities, the usual litany. How could I, a priest, justify voting for such a person?
What would you have said? I reminded him that she, not Bill, was the candidate, and suggested he may have been misled about her. Her qualifications and integrity had been thoroughly vetted by years of hostile investigations that had resulted in what? Nothing. I don’t think he bought any of it, but they weren’t the real issues anyway. What I wanted to know, given his high standards for integrity and truthfulness, was how he reconciled those standards with support for 45 given his very public record of disregard for truth, and a lifelong history of cheating, abuse, assault, and deception. It was not a sarcastic question. In fact, I asked him to not answer but ponder it.
He’s not unusual. If we are honest, many of us who profess to be be Christians regular in worship, are able to lay Jesus’ moral teaching aside in our daily lives because we never internalized what he taught beyond a smattering of something from Sunday school. We don’t have a conflict to resolve because it isn’t there. We’re not bad people. We’ve got a strong sense of right and wrong. We’re among the good, decent people who populate our communities. We have good, decent friends, and are active in volunteer service. So what’s going on?
Not long ago I wrote about Andrew Carr’s 1968 HBR article arguing for the suspension of the usual ethical standards if one wanted to succeed in business. They may have their rightful place in other aspects of one’s life, but in business they are a liability. It was an extreme view hotly debated at the time, but it raises interesting questions. The lessons that have been internalized in the hard world of work tend to endorse a view of life, maybe not as brutal as Carr’s, but heading in that direction. And why not? Most of the others out there are not church going Christians, or people of any faith. What values do they have? Can they be trusted? Besides, some branches of the Church teach a form of God’s transactional justice, full of judgment and wrath, that leaves folks convinced of their own worthlessness, and certain of the condemnation of others. Better look out for yourself in a world like that. A few ersatz churches preach a prosperity gospel so enthusiastic about the accumulation of wealth that getting some of it by whatever means can be interpreted as a sign of God’s approval. And there is one more thing; we have a well documented track record of assuming the social standards we grew up with are the ones Jesus approves of. We make them the ultimate judge of what is right, and are horrified when they’re challenged. It tends to anchor our prejudices in cement and lead to gross injustices.
If Jesus’ teachings establish the standard for moral behavior, and if we agree that humans are not capable of meeting them with consistency, how much deviance is acceptable before things become unacceptable? How much deviance can occur before we recognize that an ethical dilemma exists? Many years ago I taught a course in ethics to first year executive MBA students. The case studies we used revealed otherwise honest people taking such small steps into unethical behavior that they never recognized when their progress had led them into the ethical quagmire of felonious illegality. By then it was too late. Few of us are the subjects of case studies, but to what extent are we willing to disregard standards to which we have never given much thought in the course of every day conversation and decisions? As Christians, how conscious are we that we are ever walking in God’s sight, and how deeply have we probed the meaning for us of what Jesus said about loving others as he loves us? I have no idea what the answer is for you. I do know the question is worth asking.
Going back to the original conversation, if the moral standards my interlocutor imposed on Clinton are important, why should they not also be imposed on Trump? My guess is that they were only important as a tool to be used against an opponent, but not against an ally, in which case they are not important at all. To be fair, maybe they are important in his personal life, but there is something else going on that makes it OK to use them selectively as political weapons. The harder question is to examine the moral standards we claim for our own lives, and the deviance from them we are willing to tolerate without giving it much thought. There isn’t that much difference between deviance resulting in felonies, and the inch-by-inch, word-by-word progress we can make in ordinary conversation and routine daily decisions that take us into to a place where we can no longer claim to be good, decent people. But how much deviance is OK? What habits of the heart do we feed that nourish Christlike behavior, and what nourishes behavior tip-toeing in the other direction? What about tolerating no deviance at all? It’s an instant leap over the limits into the immoral and unethical. Jesus says so.
The point is not to find ourselves guilty, condemned as hypocrites. The point is to honestly examine our own lives with the intent of becoming persons of greater integrity, truthfulness, and generosity toward others than we were yesterday. The point is too avoid using moral standards as cudgels to beat up on some people while excusing others. The point is to find joyful freedom of life, knowing that we are not deceiving ourselves, or others, at least not very much. That’s what it means when we are dismissed from church to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”