A decade ago, when I was covering religion for the paper in a presidential election year, I did a fairly big takeout on the Guilford County chapter of the Christian Coalition. It was fairly innocuous, which reflected the nature of that particular chapter, although I had some sidebar material on what the state and national groups had been up to as well. The next day, one of my co-workers, having read the sidebar material, asked me, “Geez … why don’t these people just do what Jesus says and treat other people the way they want to be treated?”
I’d heard the same question before, of course, but this time, God, Satan and/or my own subconscious posed a question in response. I didn’t voice it then, and I haven’t often voiced it since because I don’t know nearly enough about psychology to parse the ramifications. But because I don’t know enough about psychology to parse the ramifications, the question has remained with me ever since:
What makes you think they’re NOT treating others the way they want to be treated?
Seriously. We presume that some of the more mean-spirited conservative Christians would never want to be treated the way they treat certain other types of people, that their “problem,” if you will, begins and ends with simple hypocrisy. But we don’t know that. And if that presumption is wrong, some other, more complex possibilities open up for understanding how and why these groups and individuals like Ted Haggard function the way they do.
Put another way, maybe simple hypocrisy ain’t always so simple.
For example, suppose that on some level, quite possibly subconsciously, these folks act as they do because doing so will generate a negative response. Jesus warned his followers they would be cursed and reviled for his sake, but that was in a time and place where his teachings were subversive and were viewed as threatening on any number of levels. If, however, you live in a time and place where your faith is, to a greater or lesser degree, shared by almost all your countrymen, does the lack of being cursed and reviled somehow reflect negatively on you, on your faith? And if it does … or if you think it does … how, then, do you get around that paradox? Perhaps by using your beliefs as a club with which to assault your fellow children of God, knowing, then, that their response will fulfill Jesus’ prophesy.
There’s also the possibility that these folks treat people the way they want to be treated because their self-loathing is so great that they see it as their due. Perhaps their poor self-esteem is because they harbor certain secrets — homosexuality, addiction, whatever — that their faith and background lead them to see as horrible sins, even more horrible than the norm. And so they judge others harshly, knowing (again, perhaps subconsciously) they will be judged harshly in return and believing they deserve no better.
Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne’s clerical paramour in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, damned himself for a sinner before his flock. He was telling them a literal truth they chose to understand nonliterally, with the result that they praised him all the more. Perhaps if he had damned his congregation instead of himself, he would have received the condemnation he so desperately craved.
A little guilt, like a little ego, can make you better, even save your life. But too much of either will kill you. And Haggard’s spiritual death, metaphoric though it is, is no less devastating to those closest to him. Ironically, for many Americans, doing a little crank and boffing the occasional rentboy are no more sinful than having an overdue library book. But Haggard and many conservative Christians like him appear to suffer from the delusion, or vanity, or narcissism, that their sins are so much worse than everyone else’s that they must do whatever they can to engender condemnation worse than anything anyone else goes through. Problem is, the only one way to engender that level of condemnation involves innocent third parties. How many openly gay Americans might be living happier lives these days if closeted gays like Ted Haggard hadn’t devoted so much time, money and spirit to making their lives less happy so as to conform to their own grotesque parody of Christ’s second great commandment?