Delight in sin

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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.

5 Comments

I don't think I've ever read anything I agree with more.

I agree with certain aspects of your post, but I think you are engaging in some pretty broad generalizations. I agree with the general idea that "sin" is an offense against God, and that any sin is equally bad in the eyes of God. That means that as Christians we should treat sin equally: one sin shouldn't get more weight than another (homosexuality v. adultery, lying, or the like).

But as far as I can tell, Christianity is always going to be in some sort of conflict with mainstream culture. Do the two sides "need" one another, or is this simply a recognition of reality - namely, that the mainstream culture is what Christians are supposed be called out of, rather than be immersed in? I vote the latter.

I'm not positive that the "controversy" over media stunts like Janet and Justin is really as dual in nature as you appear to contend. To be certain, the "religious right" or, more particularly, offended individuals, make their complaints heard. However, the controversy - and the frenzy - is typically the result of two groups. First, the media itself, leaping on a story as a means of generating revenue and ratings. Second, casual observers whose interest is caught by the controversy.

Janet Jackson didn't become the most searched topic in the history of the Internet because of the controversy between the religious right and the "liberal elite;" people were searching for her because they wanted to replay what happened. To question whether that is a good thing or not isn't disfunctional. It's what we're supposed to be doing regarding any behavior.

I never said Christians need the seedier side of mainstream culture. I wasn't talking about Christianity at all, in fact. I was talking about those who pretend to representat Christianity by doing nothing but talk about all the sins they don't themselves commit. They can't do that (and thus create a distraction from their own sin) unless there's someone else they can turn into a target by highlighting their sin. Unfortunately, too many Christians see something they like in this and join in the fun.

As for the average person, you're right. The average person isn't playing this game directly but is just a pawn moved around by both sides, useful to the media who make the money off it and useful to the religious right pundits who need an audience to keep saying what they want said to show the distance between "those sinners" and "us pure" religious charlatans.

On an unrelated note, I don't agree with your claim that all sins are equal. I'm not sure why you think I meant that. Any sin is sufficient for worthlessness in earning one's way to God. It doesn't matter who has more sins or worse sins. In that way we can't compare ourselves with other people and say someone else is of less or greater value in God's eyes. Yet that doesn't mean that each sinful act is of equal moral worth. I'm fairly certain that God sees a brutal rape and murder of young child as far worse than being given an extra penny back as change and not telling the cashier and returning it. Jesus assumes different moral worth of some sort when he says that Sodom and Gomorrah weren't as bad as the cities he was currently talking to (and would have repented if they'd seen the miracles he was doing). This higher moral worth didn't make Sodom and Gomorrah good enough, and so they still deserved what they got, but that doesn't mean everything is equally bad.

Jeremy -

The problem with what you write about sin isn't that God might see certain sins as "far worse" than others, but that any sin is an offense against him. Any offense must be forgiven; any offense can be forgiven. In that context, they are equal. They don't necessarily deserve equal punishment (whether before God or man), but that isn't the point. Once you have committed an offense against God - whatever it might be - there is an equal level of separation from him.

If you agree that the person who commits a brutal rape and murder can obtain God's forgiveness (and eternal life) through repentance just like I can for stealing a penny from a cashier, you've really acknowledged the relative "equality" of sin for spiritual purposes.

That's right, and I thought it was what I said. In terms of its spiritual effects and consequences, all sin is on the same level. I do think it's important to maintain that not every act is as wrong as every other act, though.

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