It’s been a rough month for hypocrites.
Just ask John Diehl and Joshua Duggar. Both men built careers peddling prescriptive views of faith and family before their own scandals emerged (Diehl: sexting a teenage intern; Duggar: molesting five girls including his sisters).
Both also resigned from their leadership roles this month — Diehl as Missouri House Speaker, Duggar as director of the legislative action arm of the Family Research Council.
While Diehl’s and Duggar’s actions can’t be conflated, they’re timely reminders that those who profess the moral high ground often stand atop a pile of their own misdeeds.
We’ve aphorized ad nauseam that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. So why are precisely those people always being caught with stones in hand?
Blame it on the more intense scrutiny levied against those in the public eye. Blame it on a crab-bucket desire to see those with power laid low. But we should also blame it on the human propensity to use piety as a cloak for our own moral failures.
There’s a reason Dante reserved his eighth circle of hell for hypocrites and other fraudsters. Our hypocrisy is often calculated, our sermons self-serving. Pointing fingers is an effective way to deflect attention from ourselves and onto others.
Hypocrisy is an especially egregious form of intellectual dishonesty because it so often wounds others with its moral misdirection. We shake our heads at Diehl and Duggar because they’ve failed to live up to the standards they would see imposed on others. In short, it’s the casualties — not simply the contradictions — that make hypocrisy so abhorrent.
But Diehl and Duggar resigned, some defenders have argued. They’ve recognized their own hypocrisy and corrected it.
That’s a little generous. It’s unlikely either would have stepped down had their actions not become public. Duggar’s assaults were more than 10 years behind him before a public airing forced his hand. It’s not his predatory sex crimes, it would seem, but his public perception that put his advocacy work at risk.
I harbor little love for the narrow “family values” Diehl and Duggar have publicly espoused — even less for the cognitive dissonance required to consider denying LGBT couples the right to form families a “pro-family” stance.
But to a certain extent — and barring unicorns like the late Fred Rogers — we’re all hypocrites. And just because we don’t always act in accordance with our beliefs doesn’t mean those beliefs aren’t valid. Consider, for example, a cigarette-smoking parent warning her child of the dangers.
Being hypocrites doesn’t make us wrong. But it does make us the wrong messengers. We can’t deride others for their behavior when we’re unwilling to change our own. Virtue starts with consistency between our values and actions.
That’s a tall order. But it’s not too much to ask from those who would be our political or spiritual guides. We need more leaders who value moral coherence over moral censure, who practice before they preach.
In short, people who live in glass houses should build more solid structures before taking aim.
Or, at the very least, invest in some blackout curtains.
Liz Cook lives in Kansas City, where she is a freelance writer and economic research editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.