Andrew Sullivan has a new Sunday Times column arguing that the latest Jackson family scandals have evidenced a deep fact about American culture -- it has two dysfunctional sides that need each other, the religious right and the liberal media. He mislabels this multiple personality disorder as schizophrenia, which really means "disruption of mental functions, not multiple personalities". In this case the effect is as we've seen:
"The religious right, fresh from outrage that gay couples might commit to one another in matrimony, made the usual loud noises. The Internet lit up; all the usual Hollywood gossip shows had clip after fuzzed up clip to reveal the horror of it all. And on and on. In the last resort, everyone wins. Ratings increase, careers blip upward, political groups have a new tool for fundraising, and hacks get something other than John Kerry's Botox to write about."
He says that American culture wars are in many ways a sham. "America worships freedom of expression but it also gets in high dudgeon about sexuality. It values and rewards celebrity above all things, and yet also condemns "misbehaving" celebrities as a curse on the nation's virtue. It favors miscreants with huge publicity, fame and therefore money. And yet it harbors genuine and lasting horror at the debasement of the culture all of this represents." He thinks the real America is the mix of all this. Each side would be nothing without the other. "Indeed, each side creates and sustains the other."
What should we make of all this?
This isn't the first time I've seen someone saying this sort of thing. Scott Lucas said similar things during the time of Bill Clinton's Senate trial:
"This is the culmination of the excesses of ideological zealotry not only from the �Religious Right� but from a secular hatred of any belief or activity castigated as �liberal�, fuelled by media gorging themselves on tabloid scandal and by a populace consuming itself in spectacle and voyeurism. Why bother with discussion when you can be shocked? Why take the time for study and reflection when you can take in and recycle vitriol?"
I've also seen people mention it with respect to the average American man's disgust with the thought of two men having sex with each other, with constant jokes and other language belittling gay men yet with some sense that it's evil to have a view that such acts are wrong. From the other end, we can see that the religious right will pick their battles based not on what's most offensive to Christian ethics (religious leaders who are obvious hypocrites and religious leaders who make lots of money off deceiving people get no mention). It's also not based on what will most outrage the average American (Andrea Yates's drowning of her own children was less of an issue than almost any sex-related incident in the public consciousness). The primary criterion seems to be what will allow heated rhetoric against any group in favor with the liberal elite, and it usually involves sex or reproduction in some way (e.g. cloning).
Americans in general delight in scandal but then when pressed don't seem to care about the moral principles at stake in those scandals. It's just a media circus, enjoying the misfortune of those who get caught doing what most people think should be ok to do anyway. Then on the other end Americans on the social right delight in the denunciation of their pet sins that they of course wouldn't commit, primarily in order to distract themselves from the odious stench of the sins they do commit. It's a classic case of decrying the immorality of American culture (e.g. for Janet Jackson's immodesty), when the pride, lovelessness, and obvious disconnect with what scripture tells us about what pleases God are much more glaring sins that the religious right just won't see. It's pointing out the speck in your brother's visible sex life when you're hiding the log in your own inner heart.
So I think Sullivan's critique of the religious right is dead on. Here are people who take advantage of the sick delight in smut that the mainstream media have (because so many ordinary consumers of mainstream media take such delight in it). Almost all snide comments I've heard about President Clinton from Christians are exactly of this sort (and remember that Paul Christians persecuted by their government to respect all leaders as God-ordained in Romans 13). Sullivan is right to suggest that many people in what's called the religious right really do need this media fascination with people's bad sides, or they can't feel better about themselves by focusing so much on everyone else's bad behavior. The media feed off the right's outrage and hatred by using that as an excuse to mention it, which will then get their consumers' outrage going. (The real media fascination with this isn't for the same reasons, I should add, since it's just as sick in its focus on people's misfortunes, which have nothing to do with distracting ourselves from our own sin, and its consumers devour that stuff just as much.)
Jim Wallis, in responding the the Clinton affair, said "We have a "successful" example of leadership that has skillfully segregated public policy from personal integrity. Morality in politics, especially for many Democrats, is defined only according to the pragmatic effectiveness of policies. Conversely, for many Republicans morality is focused exclusively on personal behavior, with blindness to the sins of social injustice."
That seems right. Republicans do need to be concerned with social justice, and that's one thing that at least is on President Bush's agenda, though Democrats think his policies are ineffective and Republicans think he's spending too much. Wallis is also right that Christians should not just abandon sexual morality as an important issue. The problem isn't that Christians are making a big deal out of a silly, private issue, as many on the left are saying. One problem is the unhealthy fascination and delight with this stuff. Another is the sense that these targets of criticism and jokes aren't the only bad ones worth focusing on, and the more people complain about it the more I will worry that we're trying to distract ourselves from thinking about our own more private but equally offensive sins.