Virtue Signaling Theater at the Mouth of Hell

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” 

—Matthew 23:23-24

One thing that strikes me as I consider the backwash of political commentary that characterizes our time is its innocence. I mean the word both intellectually and spiritually. The commentators seem never to have made a serious examination of conscience. They do not think of the words of Jesus above. Perhaps they have never heard them, or his stern warning, that the measure we give will be the measure we get. In their own estimation, they are perfect children, sure of the rightness of what they believe and of their moral stature.

When the boy from Kentucky last year stared blank-faced at the native American badgering him, he was reviled by millions of such moral children, who were ready to string him up. A young computer programmer makes the rather obvious point that women might not be attracted to that kind of work in the same numbers as men, he too is reviled by millions, and he loses his job.

Earlier this week, a woman with a loose dog in Central Park, she behaving badly, was confronted by an African American bird watcher, he behaving badly. When he seemed to threaten her and her dog, saying, “I’m going to do something and you won’t like it,” making reference to a plan to offer the dog a treat he said he carried with him for just such encounters, she called the police, and she mentioned his race. For doing that, she has lost her job, and the dog, too, while she gave millions of moral children the opportunity to dance and hug themselves for how good they are.

Children, we are not good. Shall we take the Ten Commandments, one by one?

“I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” The commandment enjoins piety and forbids idolatry. Are our churches and synagogues full? Or are we a people who snicker at piety, while turning the word “idol” into a term of praise? “That is all well for you,” someone may say, “but I think that God is a fable.” Nay, think so still, said Mephistopheles to Faustus, till experience teach thee otherwise.

Every injunction of the moral law is a fable to those who are set upon ignoring or violating it. Yet deep within our hearts, we believe that justice is no mere word. If we hang a man for saying an unkind thing, while we ourselves dance along in sins a thousand times worse, where will the justice be? Do we not bring down condemnation upon ourselves, by the dreadful measure we mete out to our brothers?

Should I enumerate these sins? Try, children, to imagine a people not quite so blithe about profanity, neglect of parents and offspring, fornication and adultery and all manner of sexual uncleanness, breach of promise, lying and cheating, theft by quick hands and the strokes of a pen; bloodshed—and let us not spread the oil of self-pity over the murder of children in the womb; gossip, detraction, slander, placing the words and deeds of our brothers in the worst conceivable light; envy and covetousness; pride and wrath and spiritual torpor, the glutton’s and the lecher’s preoccupation with the body, and avarice, including the avarice of ambition.

Perhaps a law of inversion applies here. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for gagging upon gnats while they swallowed camels whole. We may think that if you are going to gag on a small thing like a gnat—the stray word that your brother inadvertently speaks because he is tired or under pressure or not thinking clearly—you will never be able to get to the camel. But that may not be true.

It may be that if you strain at gnats, you will swallow camels, and if you swallow camels, you will strain at gnats. It is as if we each were supplied with a certain fund of moral condemnation. The less we spend upon our own sins, which are the only sins we can punish immediately and with a clear conscience, the more will we spend upon other people’s sins, which we can easily make appear far worse than ours; sins we perhaps do not commit, for the simple reason that we happen not to enjoy them.

Our tastes run to others. Or the less of that fund we spend upon grave sins, those which deprive someone of life, as abortion does, or which corrupt the innocence of children, as pornography does, or which strike at the heart of the family, as divorce does, the more will we spend upon the pardonable sins that everyone is prone to, or even upon what is no worse than a breach of etiquette.

Dismember that child in the womb, doctor, but make sure you extend the correct pinky while you do so.

All this is mere theater for our own delectation, as the words of Jesus suggest. The hypocrite is not the person who says one thing and does another. He is the play-actor, the man or woman who puts on a show of righteousness, to fool himself first of all, because he is his own favorite audience. What is called “virtue signaling” is pure hypocrisy, pure play-acting, unfurling your banner of righteousness and dancing before it, dancing at the mouth of hell.

What we should say, always, urgently, is only the truth: that we are the worst of sinners, and that on account of us the world is as it is, that we are the cause of despair in others, and that if it were not for the grace of God, we should never see salvation.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

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