"My intent was to expose a hypocrite," says the male prostitute who revealed last week that evangelical pastor Ted Haggard had been paying him for homosexual sex. To be sure, the charge of hypocrisy resonates, with some people repeating it with unseemly glee and others sadly acquiescing in it. Haggard himself seems to concede it, accusing himself in his deeply affecting letter to his congregation of being a deceiver and a liar. The charge of hypocrisy, however, is unjust. Haggard is no hypocrite, and that so many people think he is shows only how sloppy our thinking about morals can be.
A man is not a hypocrite because he violates a moral norm in which he sincerely believes. President Clinton, I am sure, believes that adultery is wrong, and he violated the norm against it in his dalliance with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky; but this made him an adulterer, not a hypocrite. Similarly, decent parents think they ought to be patient with their children, but an overworked mother who snaps at her child at the end of a long day is guilty of impatience, not hypocrisy. Violating norms we sincerely accept does not make us hypocrites. If it did, hypocrisy would not be a peculiar kind of wrongdoing but a concomitant of all wrongdoing.
Wrongdoing like that in my examples is not hypocrisy because it flows from weakness, not malice. Contrary to our sincere intentions and wishes, we sometimes do things we know to be wrong. Immediately after doing them, we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong. We wish we had not done wrong, and we intend to do better next time. Unless we live in one of the stricter religious communities, we do not announce these faults to the world; rather, for various reasons¯some good, some bad, depending on the circumstances¯we may even conceal them. All this makes us weak, not hypocrites. When President Clinton concealed his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, he may have perjured himself or obstructed justice, but he still did not become a hypocrite.
Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing. It’s a certain kind of lying, and so can be done only consciously and intentionally. In particular, a man’s moral character comes from what he takes as his final end in life, his understanding of the human good, and the hypocrite is a man who dissembles about what he thinks this good is. The hypocrite pretends to accept and live by one set of values when, in fact, he accepts and lives by quite different ones. Thus a man who professes belief in the norm against adultery and seeks a reputation as a family man but all the while keeps a mistress, relishing his time with her and intending to keep her indefinitely, or at least until he can replace her with a yet more sexually attractive woman¯this man is a hypocrite. So too the corporate executive who cultivates a reputation for honesty and lectures the business community on ethical issues but meanwhile engages in a scheme of financial fraud over many years, hoping to keep his ill-gotten gains when he retires to Bimini. Such people pretend to live in accordance with values that they do not hold and have no desire to hold. Their whole lives are lies, lies about what they think the human good is. That species of lying is hypocrisy.
Ted Haggard, I am sure, always believed that homosexual conduct was wrong, always wanted to avoid such conduct, and always regretted engaging in it after he did so. He found himself experiencing very powerful desires contrary to the values he sincerely believed in, desires he wished with all his heart he could have escaped from, desires he refers to as a "repulsive and dark" part of his life against which he has been warring for a long time. Sometimes, contrary to his wish, he gave in to those desires. This makes him weak, not a hypocrite.
Writing in this space Tuesday , Frederica Mathewes-Green says she finds Haggard’s face "a crazy-scary one¯somebody I’d instinctively step away from." Ms. Mathewes-Green does not repeat the charge of hypocrisy, and she is entirely sympathetic to Haggard, but her words here seem to me unkind and unwise. In Ted Haggard’s face, I see a good man with a serious weakness¯but not too serious a weakness, for, as Aquinas says, sins of lust are the least serious of the cardinal sins. We are all weak in many ways, many of us in ways morally worse, if less dramatic, than Ted Haggard’s. Stepping away from him would be morally perilous for us, and it’s not something I would do. I’d rather stand with him.
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