Hypocrisy and Virtue

January 28, 2019 Updated: January 29, 2019


The charge of hypocrisy is common in our contentious times. It’s used indiscriminately against those who, in the accuser’s mind, fail to live up to their own standards or who simply change their minds. It seems to have been reduced to another word for inconsistency.

Secular liberals use the insult against Christians who fail to live up to their own moral code, or who emphasize the importance of “character” in a political candidate when talking about the Clintons or the Kennedys, but change the subject to King David when talking about Trump.

Both sides find old statements on policy issues such as welfare reform, border security, or marriage on which the other side has changed its mind (or “evolved,” as President Barack Obama put it).

In this usage, hypocrisy means inconsistency either between words or professed values and actions, or between a belief held at one time and a contrary belief held at a later time.

In our book on social justice, Michael Novak and I discuss the reaction of many anti-Christian readers to a 2014 Huffington Post story about how Miss Kay, the wife of Phil Robertson, star of popular reality show “Duck Dynasty” and a Christian elder, had forgiven her husband for the way he had treated her in the early years of their marriage, 50 years ago. A typical comment opined, “So I guess this makes him a hypocrite and she is another enabler. Typical Christian behavior!”

What makes the Christian couple hypocrites in this view is that they once behaved in ways that they now condemn. It’s not that they deny it or pretend otherwise, but it’s that they now profess values that one of them once violated. Fifty years ago.

But the story of a sinful man repenting, being forgiven, and converting his life to follow God is thousands of years old and repeated many times in the Old and New Testaments, from David to Matthew, Paul, and countless others.

Compare this modern view to the maxim of the 17th-century worldly wise author La Rochefoucauld, who said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Hypocrites, in the old view, pretend to have virtues they don’t have precisely because they recognize the behavior as virtuous. They believe that’s how people should behave. Their accusers think so, too. They criticize them, not for trying and failing to live up to a shared moral code, but for pretending to do so.

What is lost in the new view of hypocrisy-as-inconsistency is the sense of sin, that we all fall short of our moral code, need forgiveness, and must resolve to change our lives. As Paul said, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (Romans 7:18–20).” That isn’t hypocrisy, it is recognition of his own sinfulness and struggle to avoid sin.

Paul isn’t here lamenting some past sin committed decades earlier, as the Robertsons of “Duck Dynasty” did. His anguish is over ongoing temptations and how, despite resolving to resist, he succumbs to them. Parents may repent their inappropriate impatience or anger at the end of a long day with fractious children, just as people may sincerely repent their sexual sins and resolve, in the words of Jesus to the woman taken in adultery, to “go and sin no more.”

And yet it happens again.

The sin is real in these examples, and so is the resolve to avoid it in future. Violating norms we sincerely accept is not hypocrisy, but weakness. In the modern view, hypocrisy is defined not as deceit or malice, claiming virtue that we lack while condemning others. Instead, it is seen as failing consistently to live up to what we believe is right, which would make us all hypocrites. The only way to avoid such “hypocrisy” is to ensure that we believe in the rightness of whatever we do, that is, lose our sense of sin.

In the modern, relativist view of morality, Paul’s problem wasn’t that he sinned, but that he thought so. He adhered to and tried to live up to a moral code—including but not limited to matters of sexual morality—that modern secular liberals reject.

The modern solution—if it feels good, do it, and forget about right and wrong—is to adapt your moral code so that it conforms to what you actually do, rather than the reverse. It is spiritually impoverished and morally bankrupt.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.