“No one likes a moralizing coprolite.”
That’s how I might have responded to a listener’s e-mail on a recent edition of The Diane Rehm Show. The topic was the sad and disturbing phenomenon of hoarding. After hearing experts describe the way hoarding takes over and destroys hoarders’ lives, the listener’s take was simple and to the point: These people are lazy.
Fortunately, Rhem’s guests were more tactful and constructive than I would have been. They noted the effort involved in acquiring and keeping all that “stuff” and rightly concluded that whatever else you might say about hoarders, “lazy” is possibly the least accurate way to describe them.
Not that it matters. The kind of moralizing on display in the e-mail and throughout modern life has nothing to do with accuracy. Who needs the facts when an epithet will do? Why let fairness, perspective, and true understanding keep you from mounting your high horse?
For instance, Rick Santelli of CNBC became an overnight sensation when he accused the government of “promoting bad behavior” and railed against subsidizing “the losers' mortgages.” His call to instead support people “who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward people who actually carry the water instead of drink the water,” rather than helping the neighbor who “has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills” is credited with helping to ignite the Tea Party movement.
Missing in all of this moralizing was the fact that very little, if any, taxpayer money went to help “losers” pay their mortgages. Instead, our money went to prop up banks and bail out AIG, which, in a process that Matt Taibbi hilariously likened to the scene in Goodfellas where the mobsters take over a restaurant, suck it dry, and then torch it for the insurance money, amounted to the same thing.[i]
Nor was any consideration given to why the “losers” did what they did. The public image of the subprime mortgage crisis was people like the Las Vegas stripper who owned five investment properties and the California tomato picker earning $14,000 a year who got into a $750,000 home with no money down and no English.
But a great deal of the problem, especially among lower and middle class Americans, was the result of refinancing and taking out second mortgages. People, as the expression goes, treated their homes as a kind of ATM, borrowing against the unrealized appreciation in their home’s value. Unfortunately, “unrealized” is a synonym for “theoretical” and “paper,” and the “appreciation” was itself an artifice of the real estate bubble. When the bubble collapsed, they found themselves underwater and trapped in homes they could no longer afford.
Why did they do it? Some of it was predatory lending, especially among the elderly and minorities; some of it was foolishness; and some of it had to do with the fact that middle-class incomes, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant since the 1970s. They borrowed to maintain the middle-class lifestyle they and the rest of us had implicitly been promised as our end of upholding the “American way of life.” (Or they borrowed to pay medical bills and/or send their kids to college.) As Steve Eisman, one of the protagonists of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short put it, “How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans.”
I’m not excusing improvidence, and my sympathy for someone who took out a second mortgage to pay for an RV or motorcycle (or a luxury kitchen and/or bathroom remodel) is probably as limited as yours. But calling people losers without even trying to take into account the circumstances isn’t moral reasoning -- it’s posturing.
The same kind of posturing was on display on yet another edition of The Diane Rhem Show. There, the subject was the “obesity epidemic.” (This time they are scare quotes.) After the kind of earnest handwringing that is the show’s stock-in-trade, the panelists and Rhem talked about the use of stigma to help America lose weight. The mandatory analogies to smoking were invoked and everyone seemed, well, open to the idea.
Everyone except Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, bless his heart. He pointed out the cruelty inherent in such a proposal. It was fascinating -- if by “fascinating” you mean “infuriating” -- to observe people who would no doubt consider the statement “marriage is the union of one man and one woman” to be a form of bigotry, enthusing over the prospect of humiliating fat people.
It was literally thoughtless. They assumed that people are overweight because of some personal defect: They are stupid, lazy, unmotivated, etc. They never stopped to think that overweight folks not only know what to do, or at least what “experts” think that they ought to do, but that many of them have tried to do it on numerous occasions without the success that the moralizing coprolites expected.
I’d like to say that Christians are immune to this kind of thoughtless moralizing but that would be ridiculous. If anything, we are more prone to it, at least in our public pronouncements[ii]: Combine the all-too-human need to feel superior to your neighbor with the “when all you have is a hammer all the world looks like one big honking nail” kind of thinking that passes for “Christian worldview” in many circles; add the well-documented anti-intellectualism and throw in a dash of “thus says the Lord,” and the wonder is that we are not more prone to vacuous moralizing than we are.
The sad thing is that not only is moralizing a sin against charity, it’s counterproductive. “Gaydar” may not be reliable, but almost everyone can tell a moralizing coprolite when he/she encounters one. The smell of the combo platter of self-righteousness, self-importance, and the urgent need to be heard is unmistakable. Those of us who are not complete masochists know to tune these people out.
We tune them out not because we think that they’re Jeremiah in Jehoiakim’s Jerusalem, but because they’ve become the equivalent of the guy talking out loud to himself on the subway or Hari Krishnas at the airport back in the 1980s (good times!): a persistent irritant of contemporary life. In a world of instant communication, where pronouncing doom is a just a tweet away (a suitably sparse medium given the lack of thought that goes into most of these pronouncements), you learn to ignore the background noise.
Of course, sometimes it’s more than noise, and that’s an even sadder part of El Kabong moralizing: In a kind of Gresham’s Law of morality, all the thoughtless moralizing makes people even less likely to hear and receive the kind of moral instruction that would do them good. It’s kind of like spam filters in an e-mail program.
The saddest part of all is that moralizing is not only unnecessary and counterproductive, but we also have it on good authority that it’s bad for our souls. In the optional part of the New Testament, a.k.a., the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
If there’s a scarier verse in Scripture for many Christians, I’m not familiar with it. Like much of the optional part of the New Testament, we tie ourselves in knots trying to explain that Jesus couldn’t have really meant what He said. The knots usually don't hold and are frequently comical, but what’s worse is that we’re so busy trying to clarify what Jesus didn’t mean that we neglect to understand and teach what He did mean.
The answer to that lies in the rest of the verse: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” A kind of reciprocity and proportionality figure prominently in Jesus’ descriptions of the Kingdom of God: We forgive as we are forgiven; we receive as give; and we are judged in proportion to our willingness to judge others. Note that in each case, God is the one doing the reciprocating.
If we insist on pointing out the speck in another person’s eye, the beam in our own will be duly and promptly noted -- not by the other person but by God Himself. If we are stingy when it comes to mercy, we cannot expect God to be generous with His mercy when it comes to us.
And, mind you, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely better at discerning what lies behind the façade of rectitude than even the most judgmental person you can imagine. Moralizers, almost by definition, are easily deceived by appearances. It goes with saying that God isn’t.
This should give us pause but it probably won’t. A lot of moralizing is happening for reasons that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, and that which ostensibly does fails to apprehend the nature of that kingdom: It operates from a belief that God’s purposes will somehow be thwarted if I don’t “say something.”
The opposite is a lot closer to the truth: In a world as thoughtless as ours, respectful and prayerful silence is a sign of the Kingdom.
Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.
[i] The conditions imposed by Treasury and the Federal Reserve on AIG in connection with its bailout included AIG agreeing to not to sue its counterparties and paying them 100 cents on the dollar. When was the last time government was this assiduous in looking out for your interests?
[ii] The odd thing is that, in my experience at least, Christians tend to be non-moralistic in their personal dealings. This, of course, is taken as a sign of decadence and infidelity by moralizers.