I was reading a piece on the Huffington Post about how men turn grumpy at 70, sort of like adolescents turn moody and recalcitrant in the first years of puberty, for hormonal reasons. It would have been depressing – not least for my poor wife, who lives both with a querulous septuagenarian and a truculent teen. Except, says the author, there are five stages of male grumpiness extending across the whole range of life from adolescence to dotage. That put it all in perspective, I suppose.

While on that page I noticed a link to another Huffpo article about how the DuckDynasty matriarch, Miss Kay, had forgiven the Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson, for the way he had treated her in the early years of their marriage nearly half a century earlier. The story is a familiar one – at least for Christians – of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and conversion of life, and a couple sticking it out through the process and very happy they did so.

Huffpo told the story more or less straight, at least compared with other liberal postings of the “gotcha!” kind.  But the hundreds of hateful comments that followed made up for Huffpo’s restraint.

Representative are these responses:

*Why is it that these Christian values fools that keep telling the rest of us that we are wrong for not believing in “their” ways & teachings time & time again always the ones caught cheating & breaking their own code?

*So I guess this makes him a hypocrite and she is another enabler. Typical Christian behavior!

*Such hypocrites.

Not all comments were of this kind. The charge of hypocrisy was common, but some pointed out that to have sinned, repented, and changed your life to conform to what you consider God’s will does not make you a hypocrite. As one reader says:

Just in case you don’t know:

hyp·o·crite [hip-uh-krit]

1.a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.

He WAS an alcoholic and he DID commit adultery. Past tense.

I am struck by the gulf of incomprehension between the Christian and anti-Christian commenters. The story of a sinful man repenting, being forgiven, converting his life to follow God is thousands of years old and repeated many times in Old and New Testaments, from David to Matthew, Paul and countless others.

And yet it is incomprehensible to the gotcha crowd who relentlessly judge those they accuse of judging. None of the anti-Christian commenters offers a shred of evidence to show that either Miss Kay or her husband of nearly 50 years is “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles etc that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”

It is said that saints – men and women of heroic virtue – are those most aware of their own sin. Any Christian who examines his conscience knows he sins. When asked to describe himself, Pope Francis – no drunk or adulterer – said simply, “I am a sinner.” We all depend on God’s infinite mercy.

Of course, there are hypocrites among Christians who, like the Pharisees of old, pretend to have virtues they don’t possess. But that is not the charge of the gotcha crowd in this case. The charge they make is that Phil Robertson once struggled with alcoholism and committed adultery. For this, if you are a Christian, they imply there is no forgiveness, no repentance, no conversion of life. And those like Miss Kay who do forgive are “enabling” behaviour that no one claims has actually occurred for decades.

So how do we understand people who acknowledge neither sin nor repentance nor forgiveness? 

One part of the gotcha response seems to be hatred of those who try to live virtuously, with God’s help, and who thereby seem to be a living condemnation of the moral state of those who don’t even try.

But what does it mean not to try? It is not that the anti-Christians recognize such a way of framing the problem. They don’t. They do not have even the sense of sin in the first place. The whole idea of living virtuously implies that one holds oneself to standards that for most of us do not come easily. Virtuous habits are acquired through practice and lost through disuse. We aim for virtue but often fall short of our own standards and principles.

This, the classical and Christian understanding, implies that there is a moral truth about what is good and what evil. What repels so many anti-Christians, I think, is that they have no grounds for discriminating between good and evil except what they actually choose to do. Like Hume, they believe that reason is passion’s slave, the rationalization of whatever we choose to do and how we choose to live. It is the boo-hooray ethical emotivism that has no grounding for morality beyond feelings.

Better in this view to rationalize and justify what we actually choose and do than to try to aim higher and risk failing. Even aiming for virtue seems like an intolerable judgment on those who do not. Better to escape the charge of hypocrisy by not having beliefs and principles that one’s actions could belie. One cannot fail to live up to standards one doesn’t have or that do not differ from whatever one does – not because one is saintly but because one’s standards adapt to what one chooses.

For America’s founders, the liberal republic could not survive such a moral climate. Democracy depended on the virtue of the citizens. Human flourishing for humans and human communities depended, as for other animals, on our living according to our nature and purpose, as Aristotle and Aquinas argued. It was not a matter of will and power, the remaking of our selves and our laws according to our carnal or other desires. Moral truth had an objective basis in our nature and destiny as humans. If there was no truth, one could not speak truth to power. Moral relativism and subjectivism become the path to tyranny. The “dictatorship of relativism,” as Benedict XVI called it, leads ineluctably to the tyranny of the state and the squeezing out of civil society, the family, the intermediary groups, the mediating structures that are key to democracy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as Robert Reilly says in his new book, “turned Aristotle’s notion of Nature on its head. Aristotle said that Nature defined not only what man is but what he should be. Rousseau countered that Nature is not an end—a telos—but a beginning: man’s end is his beginning, or, as Allan Bloom expressed it, “there are not ends, only possibilities.”

Like many proponents of the sexual revolution today, Rousseau had a particular hatred for that most constraining of institutions, the family that he considered artificially constructed. He called for the education of children to be taken from the family and given to the state. As Reilly puts it, “Once society is atomized, once the family ceases to interpose itself between the individual and the state, the state is free to transform the isolated individual by force into whatever version of ‘new man’ the revolutionary visionaries espouse.”

Rousseau’s influence is everywhere today. Recall the Obama campaign ads featuring “Julia,” who from cradle to grave was nothing more than a ward of the state and the family is no where present, not even when she wants to have a baby.

But as Austin Ruse puts it in his review of Reilly.

…old nature is a powerful thing, and nature tied to conscience is practically unassailable, certainly unassailable without powerful justifications, rationalizations, and as it turns out, the embrace and celebration of society. Aristotle wrote, “Men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives.” Disputes over homosexual acts or abortion or divorce or contraception or fornication immediately become personal and this is precisely because they are so personal…. 

Reilly says the insistent voice of conscience must be muffled in favour of persistent sinning. The sinner does this through internal justification and rationalization and the further insistence that the sin be accepted and even celebrated by society at large.

How strong, then, the hatred those celebrants of vice feel for those who see the behaviour in question as wrong. How loud the cries of hypocrisy when those self-acknowledged sinners fall, give in to temptation. And how they redouble their efforts to use the power of the state to enforce recognition of vice as virtue, and to crush those who dissent in the name of an intractable reality that is not simply a matter of will and power.

NOTE: This blog has taken up the concept and current rhetorical use of “hypocrisy” in several earlier posts.

Paul Adams is an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii. He lives in Florida. This piece has been reproduced with permission from his blog, Ethics, Culture, & Policy.

Paul Adams is emeritus professor of social policy at the University of Hawai'i. He now lives in Florida and blogs at Ethics, Culture, and Policy.