Casting Stones: Religious Hypocrisy and Us

Almost anytime in the news, we can scroll down the screen and see that someone has been caught in an outrageous act of hypocrisy. Right now, the person in the spotlight is Ted Haggard, an anti-gay pastor who was the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals until it was found out that he hired a male prostitute for oral sex and bought drugs from him. Haggard is in the headlines again because after being removed from his church and spending three years of public soul-searching, he has toned down his rhetoric against gays and lesbians and is starting a new church. Of course, Haggard is just the flavor of this month. There are many others. The details are often different, but the stories stay the same: a man gains notoriety for keeping American families on the straight and narrow, until he gets caught with a sex worker in his car; politicians who come to D.C. espousing family values for our country destroy their own families by having an affair with their staffers; a preacher rails against sexual immorality, until we find out that he is having inappropriate relationships with women in his congregation.

We become infuriated by the hypocrisy. Often our anger comes from our own personal memories being betrayed in a relationship. Or we work for the rights for same-sex couples and get fed-up when we see that the person on the other side of the issue has a closet the size of a five-car garage. Upon seeing a famous preacher fall into this trap, some people reject Christianity altogether because they say that it's just full of hypocrites. Others see lying politicians, and they lose complete faith in our political process. I wonder: what fuels our need to condemn hypocrisy in the first place? After all, most of us are hypocrites in one way or another.

It could be that the very thing we struggle with ourselves is the thing we hate seeing in others. We see this happen in families all the time -- parents get frustrated by their children when their children start to exhibit the character defects that they themselves have. I knew a father who became infuriated that his son procrastinated on every homework assignment. The son never planned ahead and always spent the last hour stressed out and panicked over the deadlines. Of course, the son learned these poor time-management skills from his father. But it still made the father angry, precisely because it was something that he himself did. The father wanted the son to learn from his mistakes, not repeat them. There are things within ourselves that we loathe, and so we detest seeing them in others even more.

Or hypocrisy might be a product of our human nature, an outcome of our tendency to crave restricted things the most. In college, I used to diet a lot. Too much, in fact. I had intricate lists of foods that I could and could not eat. But then I realized that I actually gained weight when I dieted, because I became obsessed with food. While compiling the list of things that I was not allowed to eat, I began to crave them. I know parents who have restricted certain toys for their children (like Barbie dolls because they were oversexualized, or water guns because they were too violent). And on some occasions the parents ended up relenting on the restrictions because they found that their children wanted the toys more because they were off-limits. It's the truth of the great myth of the Garden of Eden, played out over and over again: when the couple was told that they could eat of any tree in the garden except for one, they craved the one fruit that they couldn't have. When a person spends his or her life talking about the one fruit that is restricted, thinking about it on a constant basis, then perhaps it is part of our human nature to start craving that very thing.

The third thing that seems to be at play -- and this is perhaps the most damaging one -- is that we operate under a delusion. We often see this with addiction. Individuals and families may spend so much time hiding an addiction, convincing themselves that it does not exist, or lying about it, that it seems like the whole family truly believes that the addiction does not exist. Everyone in the town may know about the addiction, but the people who are living with it, or those closest to it, have learned to excuse it so often that they begin to live in an alternative reality, and they fully accept that there is no problem.

So how can we be careful not to add fuel to our own hypocritical actions? We can start by looking at our own lives before judging the behaviors of others. We can make it a practice to take an inventory of our character defects. We can look closely at what Carl Jung called our shadow side, those things that we would rather hide. When we understand that our shadow is part of who we are, we can have a healthy realization of our own proclivities. Many times that understanding will lead us into accepting behaviors that we have in the past seen as wrong -- such as homosexuality. Other times looking closely at our shadow side means getting the help that we need to overcome our character defects, so that we're not caught in those strange delusions about ourselves. We can find a loving faith community or a support group, a safe space where we can turn ourselves over, realize those things that we have hidden, acknowledge all of those things that fuel our hypocrisies, and embrace a God-given newness.