Although I grew up in a Methodist
church in Baltimore, my grandfather had rejected religion and was quite vocal
about his freethinker (that’s what we used to call atheist) views. One
day, when I was about eight, I asked him why he hated the church.
”Because it is full of hypocrites,” he replied.
Given today’s spectacular resignation
of the Christian pro-family congressman Mark Souder (R-IN), I can’t help but
think my grandfather is looking down from the heaven he didn’t believe in and
saying, “I told you so.”
Souder confessed to an affair with a part-time staffer and resigned his
office saying, ”To serve has been
a blessing and a responsibility given from god. I wish I could have been a better
example. I sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual
relationship with a part-time member of my staff.”
With surprising maturity, Souder took
responsibility for his actions and only placed a modicum of blame on the media
and “poisonous Washington environment,” stepping aside for his family. But what really makes this situation
odious is that Rep. Souder and his girlfriend-staffer made a YouTube video
about abstinence, complete with comments about how hard it is to stop teenagers
from having sex.
On the hypocrisy meter, this one
ranks right up there with the recent “rentboy” scandal involving George Rekers,
anti-gay activist and member of the founding board of the Family Research
In some ways, Americans expect
politicians to be hypocrites. With
a famous quip, Adlai Stevenson summed up our cynicism with the nature of
politics by saying, “A hypocrite is the kind of
politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a
speech for conservation.”
Stevenson’s remark certainly describes the Souder affair.
But it isn’t just about politics or our jaded
attitudes toward such. Souder’s
actions underscore something much worse–the use and abuse of religious faith to
1) manipulate and control others without having to submit the same standards
yourself, and 2) using religion as a cover for one’s own sins. Of such actions, the Jewish philosopher
Hannah Arendt wrote that, “Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us
with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to
the core.” These are the reasons
why so many people in contemporary America are rejecting Christianity–and why
they are rightfully criticizing Christians for failing to act as Jesus would
have his followers act.
Hypocrisy isn’t just about a single individual–it
is, sadly enough, about a community.
The hypocrite not only embarrasses himself, but places all those who
share his faith tradition in the awkward situation of having to defend
themselves as well. It jeopardizes
the whole of the church. As I used
to say to my grandfather, “But not all Christians are so bad! Surely some must practice what they
preach!” He’d look back at me,
with a sad sort of winsome wisdom, and say, “I hope your church will be
So, Rep. Mark Souder, I can’t particularly offer
you forgiveness or let you off the hook.
Not only have you hurt yourself and your family, you have hurt me–even
if I never voted for you, never agreed with your politics, and don’t share your
version of Christianity. Just because I am a Christian, albeit a progressive, mystical, social justice Episcopalian one, I have to bear the burden of your sin–and that of George Rekers and Ted Haggard and the current Pope…and sadly, on and on. And I hear in my memory the voice of my grandfather and all the invective he’d pour out against the church because of the likes of you.
To all you fellows, I can
only offer you the insight of the 18th century British essayist,
William Hazlitt: “The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The
repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”