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How Hypocrisy Drives Unbelief
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How Hypocrisy Drives Unbelief

What happens when religion is reduced to a moral code.

This newsletter is a bit ambitious. I want to explore a question that’s pervasive in American Christian discourse. If we all know that Christians aren’t perfect, why does Christian sin and hypocrisy drive so many people from the faith? After all, many of the giants of the faith committed dreadful acts. Can we demand that our pastors be better than, say, Peter or Paul?

To answer as best as I can, I want to tie together two seemingly unrelated strands of news. Last month, Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries published their biannual theological survey of American Evangelicals. The results were sobering. While an overwhelming percentage of Evangelicals believe in traditional Christian sexual morality (for example, 94 percent agree that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, and 91 percent say that abortion is a sin), a majority also misunderstand the nature of Jesus Christ himself, believing that he is “the first and greatest being created by God.” 

In fact, a surprising 43 percent of Evangelicals say that Jesus was a great teacher, but not God at all. Both of these assertions flatly contradict scripture, which unambiguously states in John 1 that “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Nicene creed is likewise clear: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made.”

Second, as I referenced in my newsletter last week, a fascinating study of 57,000 American undergraduates at 159 top universities found that “Homeschooled and parochial schooled undergraduates are as or more likely to identify as LGBT or non-binary as those from public or private school backgrounds.” Here’s the precise data:

Those who attended parochial school or were homeschooled were at least as likely in 2021,and more likely in 2022, to identify as LGBT. In 2022, for instance, female students from a parochial school background were 11 points more likely, and those from a homeschool background 3 points more likely, to identify as non-heterosexual compared to those from public or private school backgrounds. Non-binary and other forms of unconventional gender identity were also higher among homeschooled and parochial schooled undergraduates.

This finding is interesting in part because many families homeschool (or send their kids to parochial schools) precisely because they want to insulate their children from the influence of contemporary sexual norms. 

This all leads me to the complex relationship between theology, morality, and hypocrisy—and to how hypocrisy is particularly damaging when Christians are clearer about their moral stands than they are about even the identity of Jesus. When religion is primarily experienced as a moral code, moral failure undermines the faith itself.

To understand how this process works, I want to turn to one of the most famous passages in scripture, in which Christ contrasts the prayers of two individuals—a Pharisee (a religious leader in ancient Israel) and a tax collector (a hated agent of the Jews’ Roman oppressors):

The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Note the different emphases. The Pharisee defines himself in contrast to the rest of the world. He lines up his righteousness next to others and is grateful for his own goodness. He’s inviting people to draw contrasts based on his personal example. 

When Christians know their morality better than they know their savior, they run the risk of making the Pharisee’s mistake. They start to define themselves and their church by their righteousness. 

Yet the tax collector has the firmer grasp on reality. He sees himself the way that Isaiah saw himself when he glimpsed the glory of God. “Woe is me,” Isaiah said, “for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips.” Any encounter with God—or even the faintest understanding of who God is—leaves us humbled, bereft of pride. 

Let’s make this practical. When Christians define themselves by their morality, their immorality discredits their faith—sometimes even to their own kids. One of the most infuriating details of my wife Nancy’s Kanakuk investigation was the story that several sources told her about the purity culture at the camp.

Campers said that Kanakuk CEO Joe White would hold up a shiny, new penny and compare it to an old penny that had been in circulation for years. The shiny penny was symbolic of virginity. The dingy penny was symbolic of sexual promiscuity. The goal was to present yourself as that shining coin to your spouse on your wedding day. Fail, and you were tarnished. Sure. you could be forgiven, but you were tarnished still.

White would hand campers a new penny to remind themselves of their commitment. Some of her sources still have that penny, given to them when they were young teenagers.

At the same time, White was turning a blind eye to repeated complaints that one of its leaders, a man named Pete Newman, was nude with young boys. On their watch, Newman committed horrific acts of sexual predation and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. And what did the camp do after Newman’s predation was exposed? It intimidated victims, bought their silence, and concealed their own inexcusable negligence from the public.

What message did that send? What message was received by the victims of the camp’s misdeeds? It’s simply this—We lied. Sexual purity is not an ultimate value. There is a higher value: our own power and position.

Now let’s turn to the story of home schools and parochial schools. In my last newsletter I asked for thoughts about why so many homeschooled kids seemed to be rebelling against their parents, and I received dozens and dozens of thoughtful responses. Reading through them, a few themes emerged.

First, don’t draw too many conclusions. Homeschoolers are a diverse community, and just as there are good and bad public and private schools, there are good and bad homeschool environments. This is absolutely true. One of the reasons why I’ve long advocated for school choice—including homeschools—is that I’ve seen homeschool families thrive in extraordinary ways. 

Moreover, not all homeschoolers are religiously conservative, so it’s not necessarily right to say that unconventional gender identities would be contrary to the values of all homeschool families. Also, it’s important to note that parenting is hardly formulaic. Kids have agency, and there is no way to perfectly parent your children to share your own values, even if that is a parent’s priority. 

At the same time, a number of correspondents wrote in to say that they’ve seen a real increase in nonbinary or “genderqueer” identification even in conservative Christian homeschools, and the explanations were often the same. On the one hand, kids chafed under extremely strict parents. On the other hand, when they did encounter LGBT communities, they didn’t find “evil” people at all, but rather folks who were welcoming, accepting, and kind.

Thus, there was a push-pull dynamic at play. The legalism of their homeschool community pushed kids away, the kindness and acceptance of outsiders pulled those kids in. 

Think of it like this. Children are steeped in moral instruction, yet they see the failures. They see the hypocrisies. What does it do to them when the church is less kind than the world? What does it do to them when their own movement’s morality proves to be hollow?

My first exposure to the homeschooling community came through attending Bill Gothard’s popular Basic Seminar in 1990. A packed Louisville megachurch swarmed with homeschool families, and they heard one of the most legalistic messages I’d heard in my life, much of it centered around sex. Young men and women were told exactly how to dress, exactly what kind of music to listen to (music with a dominant rhythm line was deemed inherently sexual), and young women were told that their sexual purity and obedience would literally make them more beautiful.

Gothard later resigned from his ministry after more than 30 women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse. What was the message that was sent and received? I’m a liar. I don’t believe my own words. When morality collided with my desire, I chose desire. 

Is it any wonder that young adults would see the version of the faith they were taught as empty and false? If morality was the core, and there was no morality, then what was left?

It’s not just that all Christians sin. Of course we do. It’s that Christians can sometimes sin so brazenly and grotesquely that the non-Christian world can serve as an actual refuge for victims of spiritual or physical abuse. Young people can feel more loved outside the church. This is a terrible tragedy, and one that’s utterly contrary to the message of the cross.

We can never believe “we are better than them.” In fact, “they” are often better than “us.” Instead, we should be both humbled and hopeful. We’re humbled in the same way that the tax collector was humbled, the same way Isaiah was humbled. By encountering Jesus we’ve encountered God himself, and we know that we’re wanting. 

At the same time, we’re hopeful. We know the answer to the tax collector’s cry, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Grace overflows. That’s why it matters so much to know exactly who Jesus is. That knowledge strips us of pretense. It strips us of pride. It allows us to see ourselves as we truly are. But it also allows us to see an even greater truth: who He is, the God who loved us enough to die for our sin.

The lesson is consistent. Time and again, when our commitment to morality collides with our self-interest, then our self-interest wins. A religion of morality devolves to a religion of self. It’s powerless against our pride. But when a commitment to self collides with Jesus, then it’s our pride that’s powerless. We know exactly where our hope lies.

One more thing …

Good Faith hosted its first live podcast this week, and our topic was anxiety. We live in an anxious age, and we speak often about battling and defeating anxiety as the key to a good life. But is that the right framing? Curtis has some fascinating thoughts on anxiety as an opportunity. 

Anxiety as an opportunity? Yes indeed. Listen to the whole thing to hear Curtis speak some challenging truths.

One last thing …

It’s amazing how many readers have written and shared how they’ve been impacted by Rich Mullins. So here’s another one of my favorites, “Sometimes by Step,” performed by Shane and Shane. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.