Why Americans Dismiss Sin

To talk of religion without reference to sin is absurd.

Sin is what results when a human being chooses evil rather than good. It is the consequence of violating transcendent values. Contending with sin is a central theme of both Jewish and Christian religious thinking.

The United States is a religious country, and one might think that sin would be a major subject of public discourse. Yet this is not so. We may talk of "morality," but being moral is generally a secular matter, cleansed of any hint of evil or sinfulness. And, oddly enough, even in religious circles, we fear the language of sin and rush to avoid it.

I acknowledge that liberal religion has a part in this. Liberal religious people are sometimes so anxious to see the good that they become blind to evil intentions and divert their eyes from sinful acts. They want to be reasonable and tolerant and therefore assume that others will be as well. Conservative religious leaders contribute to their unease by invoking sin for certain types of behavior that they abhor -- such as homosexuality -- while ignoring it for everything else, thus giving the impression that their real purpose in talking about sin is to promote hatred of gays.

But the problem goes deeper. When an individual acknowledges his sins, he recognizes his weaknesses and begins to take responsibility for his actions. There are many aspects of American culture that discourage us from taking responsibility for what we do. Denying responsibility, we also deny sin.

Ours is a culture of endless explanation. Our 24-hour news cycle means that sinful acts of the most straightforward sort -- abuse, violence, fraud -- are subject not just to reporting but to non-stop interpretation. Experts of every conceivable variety put forward explanations that in another era might never have been offered; some will be ingenious, some bizarre and many downright ridiculous. We gain thorough coverage but at the price of explaining what does not need explanation and excusing what should not be excused.

Ours is a therapeutic culture. Freud and his disciples have conquered us all. There is no outrageous act that cannot somehow be attributed to the interplay of psychic forces or to some newly discovered psychological "syndrome."

Ours is a culture of victimhood. Groups of all sorts see themselves as victims, even when they plainly are not. I know Jews who see an anti-Semite under every bed and evangelical Christians who are convinced that they are an oppressed class in America. By portraying themselves as victims, they send the message that they are not responsible for their actions; by definition, the fault lies elsewhere.

Ours is a culture of medicalization. (My thanks to Wilfred McClay for this term.) We trust medical science more than we should, expect from it more than is reasonable, and bestow upon it wisdom and insight that it does not possess. We believe we are at the mercy of diseases, often of a new and esoteric sort, even when evidence is scant, and we listen to neuroscientists who assert that biology controls both morality and destiny. What all of this means is that our own responsibility is diminished.

Ours is a culture of relentless realism. Realism is seemingly a virtue; in the political and financial arenas, the "realists" are tough and calculating and call upon us to deal with the world as it is. But claiming to be shorn of illusions, they are often shorn of ideals, and their talk quickly shades into fatalism. If one cannot change the world around us, one has no responsibility for that world; and in such a world, apathy makes more sense than responsible action.

In light of the above, it should not be surprising that we do not talk of sin in America. Our culture pushes us to cast aside responsibility and to find others to blame.

I thought of these matters while sitting in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Left to my own resources, I am no more able to admit my sins than anyone else. I point fingers, make excuses, hold others responsible. But the liturgy on this day is unyielding and harsh. In one prayer after another, we were obligated to proclaim what we otherwise resist: "We have violated the laws of God and Torah. We have sinned."

There is not the slightest suggestion here that our fate is determined by societal pressures, "root causes" or any other forces beyond our control. Indeed, the liturgy specifies the sin of prikat ol, which means throwing off societal restraints for one's own purposes, or more simply, "casting off responsibility." To cast off responsibility is a sin and our own fault. Period.

Jews and Christians, to be sure, do not understand sin in precisely the same way, but both see it as a foundational theological category. As a Jew, fresh from the jarring experience of Yom Kippur prayer, I find myself wishing that we would struggle with it more than we do -- separately in our respective traditions and collectively as partners in building a more just society.

Absent sin, we are not responsible. Absent sin, there is no moral precision. Absent sin, there is no moral judgment. Absent sin, there can be no forgiveness.