From the Duggars to the weekly examples of the latest clergy or legislator who has professed “Family Values” – which everyone knows is code for anti-LGBT equality - it has become routine, even expected, to find that the more someone righteously protests, the greater the likelihood that they have related skeletons in their closets struggling to burst out. It’s been a psychologist’s expectation for generations that the louder people object, the more likely it is that they’re covering up their own guilt.
They’re easily, and rightly, labeled hypocrites. And preaching moral outrage against others while living and doing what it objects to is a necessary part of legalistic, moralistic right-wing religions.
But labeling them hypocrites is too easy. It actually lets the religious views, and most of the people who endorse them, off the hook.
Any right-wing religionist can agree that someone didn’t live up to the standards they blame on divinity. “We’re all sinners,” after all. But if these sinners are willing to seek some kind of forgiveness, to the right-wing it really doesn’t matter what they did. Their slate is cleansed and right-wing religion is thereby reaffirmed.
Hypocrites to them are not only an anomaly but merely human beings who’ve back-slidden. If backsliders claim that they’re forgiven and born again, all is well and the beat can go on.
What the term hypocrites doesn’t do is stick long enough to affirm what it is that’s inherent in right-wing religion itself that not only spawns hypocrites but drives right-wing religion’s judgmental meanness. It frames the problem as a personal one, a set of mistakes, human flaws, youthful indiscretions, or common foibles, not a problem deeply embedded within right-wing religion.
What’s exposed when we see right-wing religious people acting out sexually, judging others ruthlessly, affirming moralistic superiority, resorting to violent language and activities, abusing children and others, and condemning to hell-fire all those who don’t agree, is the sexual dysfunction and erotophobia, tribalism, violence, abusiveness, and self-righteousness inherent in right-wing religion.
Exposed is not only the psychological problems of the individuals who’ve come to light, but the very nature of right-wing ideology and practice that attempts to cover-up those problems with a veneer of some kind of godliness. It’s the latter that takes damaged psyches and encourages them to find their answer in a religion addiction.
No matter how we might not want to admit this to ourselves, we can no longer give right-wing religion itself a pass by calling predictable future examples we will witness “hypocrites.” We must expose each example as the fall of a façade that covers what right-wing religion really is.
Right-wing Christianity’s inherent violence and abusiveness can be seen in the Jesus it chooses. Seldom does it focus on the Jesus of the Gospels who values others by their treatment of “the least of these my brethren.” Instead it’s enamored with the warrior Jesus of the Book of Revelation who comes in judgment and destructiveness, armed for battle against all enemies and ultimately throwing them in “the lake of fire” for everlasting torment.
No wonder so much right-wing Christianity supports the gun lawlessness pushed by the National Rifle Association. And some churches have even given away rifles as premiums for membership.
Only a religion of violence and abuse could trumpet The Cage: A Young Children’s Guide to the Biblical Teaching on Hell, by a C. Matthew McMahon, Ph.D., Th.D., which Puritan Publications of Tennessee published in June, describing the book as “tastefully illustrated.” As the book’s “Note to Parents” warns:
“Some parents may be thinking that this kind of exhortation to children will give little ones horrible nightmares… It would be better for them to have nightmares now while you teach them about the realities of hell… than to wind up in the reality of the nightmare that is hell. To the Christian parent of young children, I plead with you to… teach your children about hell and the power of God’s wrath. Teach them that Christ is their only hope… Teach them that they are locked in a spiritual cage and that it dangles over the fires of hell.”
This religious abuse of children was exposed by Donald Capps in The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children (1995). But it’s abusive to adults as well.
Sometimes it breaks out in public adult shaming. Like a punishing parent from his own childhood, pastor Jonathan Leeman labels this “discipline” in his book: Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus, saying rigorous church discipline is one of nine central components that comprise a “biblical church.”
Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer, author of The Making of Evangelicalism, is thereby reminded of past public heresy trials that had implications not only for church membership but also an individual’s job security. “The Puritan model is to put people in the town square or the village green in the stocks as a way of shaming the individual,” Balmer writes.
And there’s nothing more shaming than right-wing religion’s attitudes toward sexuality. In a culture already confused about the place of sexuality while using sex to sell everything it can, right-wing religion stifles accurate discussion with abstinence-only, anti-contraception, and anti-women’s self-determination moralisms. It’s easy to make people feel guilt about their sexual lives, and right-wing religion’s known how to play on that well.
Right-wing religion’s inherent tribalism is manifest in its obsession with insiders versus outsiders. It has divided into hundreds of sects over who has it right and who is wrong on every question of doctrine and practice.
The arguments of centuries ago can still be heard among its leaders today. And let’s not even get started on a discussion of what it did historically to those judged as heretics before secular law stepped in.
All of this informs what’s really going on and what we’re actually denying by calling those from whom the veneer drops “hypocrites.” And in order to make that clear, we have to change our framing: What we’re seeing is the heart of what right-wing religion itself really is, not merely hypocrisy.