Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

The Scientific Explanation for Christian Hypocrisy

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on January 4, 2010

Ok, so maybe the title of this post is a wee bit misleading. The scientific study this article describes does not focus specifically on Christianity or even on religion. Still, it made me think about my youth in Christian circles, and the ridiculously obvious hypocrisy I witnessed that most others seemed blinded to. I have always chalked up this Christian hypocrisy to the fact that the ideal Christian life — as described by Paul: one with no lust, and bereft of many other normal and natural human desires and needs — is simply impossible to achieve. Thus, Christians had no option but to ignore this fact, pretending that they were achieving and living that life. But, if this research is correct, perhaps much of this rampant condemnation and hypocrisy in Christians circles is simply due to the side affects of having power. This would certainly explain why the staff, faculty, and students with the most power at my MK boarding school tended to be the biggest hypocrites and fell the hardest when their hypocrisy was revealed.

Here is the article: “Why Powerful People — Many of Whom Take a Moral High Ground — Don’t Practice What They Preach”


11 Responses to “The Scientific Explanation for Christian Hypocrisy”

  1. stephy said

    Really fascinating!

  2. Ann said

    Galinsky noted that moral hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment demonstrated that people who don’t feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed “hypercrisy.” The tendency to be harder on the self than on others also characterized the powerless in multiple studies.

    “Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality. The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don’t feel the same entitlement,” Galinsky concluded.

    How do you empower yourself without becoming hypocritical, yet avoid being hypercritical and self-sacrificing? The disempowered becoming the empowered, and the empowered becoming disempowered. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in genuineness, courage, realism and compassion (versus resentment, fear, delusion, and pity).

    • Ann said

      By the way, I don’t claim to have the answer to this cycle. It’s just frustrating when the people in power condemn the powerless, the powerless condemn themselves until they get fed up with themselves (or their situation or treatment by the powerful) and feel entitled to power, become empowered, and then the powerless condemn the powerful and eventually become powerful. Somewhere the morality has to change.

  3. Ann said

    I’m not sure Chaplain why you’re not getting more comments on this post. I think this article is particularly relevant for today’s culture as the people with religious belief hold most of the power in the world. If someone claims to have moral superiority, but can’t possibly live up to the ideals they preach, there is a lot further to fall. Particularly when there’s a double standard and people aren’t actually following their own rules for the way those under them should live (like those morally inferior welfare recipients or illegal immigrants or drug addicts). Do you know how many religious people I see in my methadone clinic… The distance for The Fall is a lot shorter when you are standing on the ground. I love the following quote from “The Stranger” by Camus about the dark wind:

    “Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too.”

    A great entry, “Courage or Fear in the Face of Freedom”, on a blog I follow, http://unconsciousarcheology.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/courage-or-fear-in-the-face-of-freedom/, addresses the fact that there are no certainties in life. People in power insist on their certainty. I’ve personally reached a point in my past where I yelled in the face of a Christian who insisted on his certainties. It’s strange having knowledge of the double standard of many fundamentalist Christians, yet accepting they won’t change. For the non-believer, facing both the absurdity of life in addition to responsibility for life takes courage. To face hatred. To be intellectually honest. And still experience compassion for fellow humans who face the same fate as me.

  4. Paulo said

    It doesn’t really surprise me that people in power are hypocrites. Sure, in this age of democracy we believe that “all men are created equal” and that everyone should live under the same rules, but throughout history that has not been the case.

    Emperors, kings, and the ruling class, all while administering the law and enforcing rules on the common man, always believed that they were above the very laws and rules they enforced. Those in power always seem to believe they are not bound by the same rules as those beneath them (it’s okay for your boss to be late, but it’s not okay for you to be late). Nietzsche described this as “master morality” vs. “slave morality” (see Beyond Good and Evil, Part 9, Section 260.).

    Machiavelli, in The Prince (a book of advice for a future ruler), not only endorsed but advised a prince on the skillful use of hypocrisy:

    … Therefore, a prince will not actually need to have all the qualities previously mentioned, but he must surely seem to have them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that having them all and always conforming to them would be harmful, while appearing to have them would be useful…
    (The Prince, Chapter 18 : “In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word”)

  5. Jerry said

    Interesting article. The connection of power with moral hypocrisy does make sense, especially in terms of the entitlement that seems to go along with power. It explains what I’ve seen much of my life in Christian circles. I have almost a cathartic reaction when I hear about another politician or televangelist moral high-grounder who has gotten caught with his pants down. I especially enjoy hearing about the ultra-conservative right wing politician who has made his career on the flag and God who has been caught with another mistress, boyfriend, soliciting a prostitute, taking bribes, fraud, etc. There are so many examples month after month that these become a pattern of behavior for a subpopulation rather than simply exceptions or frailties of human beings. No — we don’t all behave like that. In fact, most people I know don’t act in such dishonest ways. It’s the dishonesty that bugs me the most.
    I think my own reaction is so strong because their public downfall is a kind of karmic repudiation of the nonsense they stood for. Even though they often talk about separating the messenger from the message, their example suggests that something about their message must be very wrong.
    I think the most pathetic are the ones who talk about how they let down God and their family (Sanford, Swaggart) and that they are only human, which to me means that they learned nothing and probably never will. I really don’t believe that publicly asking for forgiveness is a “courageous” act — it’s a cowardly act of desperation. Living honestly is a lot more courageous and it takes a lot more work.

  6. JN said

    I don’t know if you have to have much power (or even an exceptionally strong moral conviction) to be a hypocrite. There are plenty of hypocrites riding the bottom of the totem pole. I think people naturally want to distinguish themselves from “those” people. It’s like in high school when one girl would condemn another as being a slut, while exhibiting almost identical behavior as the one she accused. I think hypocrisy is probably a basic human trait (not saying I advocate it). I bet even animals have some traits that we could identify as their version of hypocrisy.

    • Ann said

      JN, Screw your totem pole. 🙂 Even more likely, a male labels a girl a slut while flirting with and sleeping around with as many girls as he can. Despite the modern language about respecting differences and supporting “equality”, it’s typically the “men” who consider themselves equals. I think few men actually view women completely as equals, viewing some of the differences of the female sex as weakness. Men like having that power. Woman are to be indulged, not really respected altogether (realize I’m generalizing here–and that I like being indulged). Men share a lot in common, particularly in the way they are brought up, that lends to similar language. It’s about in-group identification and male comradery. I suppose there is a hint of resentment there for me, although I like being a woman and being different from males. If anything, maybe woman are the superior humans, only most of us haven’t realized it yet-try that one on for size! 🙂 There’s an indication from current research that in prehistoric societies woman held the power.

      And Jerry, hello…exactly. People with actual power were found to be typically more lenient with themselves, but expect subordination to their rules by the people under them. In other words, as long as they got away with their behavior the behavior was fine, while the people without power were hard on themselves even when maintaining appearances. Even if everyone is hypocritical at times, I think there is definitely a difference of degree and kind. And I didn’t mean to infer ALL religious people have power. But it is religious morality that is generally revered in today’s world (at least outwardly).

      • Ann said

        JN–Wanted to add something here for you. My comment about women was for the audience. Around the globe woman are still generally viewed, in 2010, as a type of property. Often oversexualized and objectified. Leading to extremes like burkas and strippers. Women buy into men’s ideas about women. It’s a man’s world. Although the US has made strides to equalize the status of men and women, these differences between the sexes are part of a power struggle. “Women’s work”, for example in human services fields, child care, and homemaking, is perceived by most as having low-power and is evidence of this inequality. I suspect this power differential is also related to money. Until we see each other as equals, that individuals are different instead of whole groups of people based on stereotyped ideas, issues of inequality in the treatment and freedom of women (along with other subgroups of people that are defined by stereotypes) will exist. You don’t hear women saying they want to rule the world (generally), but simply, “Give us the respect and rights we deserve as humans” (and I realize I may be advocating for women who are buying into their world view as seen through a hole in their clothing). Individuals are different, and in my opinion, some people are morally superior to others. That doesn’t mean there are inferior humans–we are equally human. Until people see this difference (also sameness), this discussion will continue.

  7. Jerry said

    Sure, anybody can be a hypocrite — it’s not limited to the rich or powerful or moralistic, but the research is suggesting that there is a correlation between having more power and being stricter on others while being more lenient on oneself.

  8. Sarge said

    Isn’t that what basicly took down Eliot Spitzer in flames?
    It wasn’t so much that he enjoyed a little extra curricular boinking call girls as the fact that he was in a position to punish people who did, and actually punished them for indulging in the same vice as him.
    It wasn’t that he was stepping out so much, as he felt himself to be immune from any repercussions that might follow.

    The man I trained horses for as a teen had a saying: “Your friends will let you down and disappoint you, your enemies will hurt you as badly as they can manage, they’ll kill you if they can, and the people two tiers above you will sell you out so fast your head will swim”.
    He contended that they often didn’t even regard themselves and the people below them as the same actual species. And Ive seen but very few exceptions to his thesis.

    A lot of people try to rise to some prominence simply because the rules will be rewritten (not actually, but in the minds of those around them) so that they DON’T apply once you have “arrived”.

    In the christian sphere, the condemnation of things and appetites “Of The World” seem to lead to indulgences and nasty little secrets that when they come out would make goat puke. Then comes that smirky statement, “I’m SAVED, not perfect”. There is usually a “Yes, but…” from supporters, too.

    In America we seem to think of wealth, ‘sucess’, power, and privilege as “good”. So, the people who have it are also deemed as “good”.
    Therefore, if you have not achieved these things you are not as worthy as the “good” people who have. Something must be wrong, some flaw as to charactor or something that makes you ‘bad’ and one who shouldn’t have any slack shown them.

    You can actually see this in the post-civil war period in the south. The monied (or propertied, since cash was as common in the post war south as rocking horse shit) class blamed the men who had served in the rank and file for the loss of the conflict. They hadn’t fought hard enough. They hadn’t sacrificed enough. If they’d just have suffered some more…

    This was said often by people who had stayed home under the “twenty slave” law which exempted them from any service, and the “yeomen” accepted this. Nodded their heads, figured they were the ones who had the immediate means to fight, so it was them. Not any of the other factors which made it happen.

    My father was an army officer, he was a counter intelligence operative during the 1950’s and 60’s.
    He didn’t talk much about it at all, most of what I heard about what he did was told to me by people who knew him. I was told that he actually had caught spies and enemy agents, arrested them.

    These were usually very high ranking officers and civilians. And if anything was done at all about it (little things like treason, selling out your own men, usually because of some personal itch that they needed to scratch and that was a way to get the where-withall to indulge it)except perhaps being relieved of command, put somewhere where the offender could be ‘watched’ (maybe) and allowed to retire.

    I remember listening to him talking to his colleagues about this (when I wasn’t supposed to be around!) and they all agreed that the higher up the tree of rank, the more blatant and open these acts were. And the more protection the person got from his immediate underlings and superiors.
    I remember them saying that several couldn’t understand why they were being arrested, my father said that on more than one occasion he was told that someone on his level “can’t understand a man like me”.

    And, for the “greater good”, there was seldom, if ever, any legal action taken, and no official notice because the people “lower down” might expect that the law would be applied as written. And that couldn’t happen.


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