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Modernity amounts to the gradual but steady emancipation of the political sphere from the religious sphere. This begins in America with simple non-establishment, but has grown into a more or less aggressive “separation of church and state.”

Even if we are to admit that the state should not establish an official religion, we will always have an ethos that undergirds our political commitments. And that ethos will inevitably have been born in the context of a particular religion. This is especially true given the fact that there simply is no such thing as religion in general or politics without undergirding values.

This brings us, believe it or not, to the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal. Within the broad ethos of Christianity exists an old principle known as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This was premised on the notion that standards of morality are objective and unchanging (therefore, “hate the sin”), but that human beings are weak and often fail to live up to those standards (therefore, “love the sinner”). This is not just a matter of faith, but also makes good sense. All of us can think of a time where we believed firmly in the evil of something (say, lying) and yet engaged in it anyhow.

But when a society abandons one ethos, it does not replace the void with no ethos; it replaces it with a different ethos. In America our current principle on the question of sin and sinners amounts to replacing the Christian principle of love with the secular principle of tolerance. The latter is much less demanding and much more individualistic. It goes something like this: as long as you’re not hurting me, I don’t care what you do. My neighbor once had a bumper sticker that said, “Don’t like abortion, don’t have one.”

Still, one can only go down the path of tolerance so far. If, for instance, we make the argument that America is a more advanced society than India because we “tolerate” pornography and they don’t, wouldn’t it be the case that a society that allows child pornography would be more advanced even than ours? The fact that we answer this latter question in the negative shows that tolerance and freedom cannot be our only criteria. We still have to talk about what’s good and what’s bad.

What does any of this have to do with Sandusky? Well, in the older Christian ethos, we would deal with the Sanduskies of the world the same way we deal with all sinners: love them, but condemn their behavior. That may mean writing really condemnatory articles about the sexualization of children, child molestation and pedophilia, but it would not mean engaging in a nationwide tar and feathering of a particular child molester or pedophile. In secular America, however, it is just the opposite: we are increasingly sexualizing our children (a clothing company was recently marketing thongs to “tweens,” and Miley Cyrus was doing pole dances at her concerts years before she was “of legal age”), and yet we tar and feather pedophiles and child molesters.

The religion of freedom makes it very hard to know what to do with the Jerry Sanduskies of the world. All of the moral revulsion that used to be brought down on sin is now being brought down on the sinner. It is not, as we are sometimes led to believe, that we are simply and gradually becoming a society that has fewer “hang ups” about things that used to be called sins. Rather, once we’ve so drastically shortened the list of sins, anything left on the list will have to take the full brunt of all of our bottled-up wrath. And this time the sinner will not be spared in the process.

As Pope Benedict XVI has often said: in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy and justice kissed. Modernity rejected that balance in favor of the gradual increase of autonomy and tolerance, believing that we could have mercy without justice. Any talk of sin now strikes us as guilt-ridden baggage that we are glad to no longer be lugging around. Yet we are still human beings, and one of the things that separates us from other animals is that we make moral judgments. So the movement towards emancipation from rules leads us ironically into ever-greater episodes of self-righteousness (the secular press makes the Pharisees of Jesus’ day seem downright latitudinarian) and scape-goating (and the bigger the goat the better: e.g., Joe Paterno).

My point here is not to exonerate anything that Jerry Sandusky or Joe Paterno did or did not do. My point is that emancipating ourselves from Christianity in order to make ourselves more “liberal” may be much more complicated than we think. And the way our media are now treating the people at Penn State may have some of them longing for the comparatively merciful days of Torquemada.

Rodney Howsare is the author of Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark), and teaches theology at DeSales University.

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