Hypocrites are us

Talk about bad timing.

On the day after former Congressman Mark Foley entered an alcohol rehab program, his beleaguered staff received a package. With reporters watching, they unpacked a framed copy of one of his most famous pieces of legislation -- a bill requiring a crackdown on sexual predators, including those who exploit minors online.

And all the people said: "Hypocrite!"

"It's hard to talk about the Foley story without talking about hypocrisy," said journalist Jeremy Lott, referring to the congressman's spectacular fall after discovery of his explicit digital messages to teen-aged male Capitol pages. "I mean, Mark Foley's a hypocrite, the Republicans are hypocrites, the Democrats are hypocrites and lots of journalists are hypocrites, too. Right now, I can't think of anyone in the Foley affair who isn't being accused of being a hypocrite by somebody and lots of the anti-hypocrites are being hypocritical, too."

It helps to define your terms, which is what my former colleague at GetReligion.org does in his edgy book "In Defense of Hypocrisy." Lott starts with the American Heritage Dictionary, which, in its most recent edition, defines "hypocrisy" as the "professing of beliefs or virtues that one does not possess."

Meanwhile, the word "hypocrite" has a slightly different meaning when used in news reports about the sins of politicians, preachers and other community leaders. When journalists talk about "hypocrites" we are usually referring to people who publicly condemn an act that they practice in secret. The classic example is the minister who preaches family values while committing adultery with the church organist.

Then there is the common anti-hypocrite, which Lott defines as a person who, at every opportunity, loudly condemns the actions and beliefs of those whom he considers hypocrites. But here is the key. The true anti-hypocrite vents his rage on an entire class of people -- usually moralists, clergy or religious believers -- and then proudly uses his disgust as a way to rationalize his own behavior.

The Foley drama offers a spectacular cast of hypocrites.

* Foley gets the "hypocrite" verdict because of his highly public work on behalf of exploited children. The Republican congressman also stayed in the closet, thus helping conservatives and the dreaded Religious Right in their battles against gay rights.

* GOP leaders are being accused of hypocrisy by those who claim that they ignored Foley's indiscretions in order to retain the services of a charismatic legislator in hip South Florida, where it would be hard to elect an ordinary Republican.

* Republicans are calling Democrats hypocrites because they screamed about Foley's actions but have not, in the past, reacted as strongly to the questionable affairs of powerful Democrats. The classic case focused on the late Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, who remained in office after the revelation that he had a homosexual relationship with a teen-aged congressional page.

* Republicans are calling some journalists hypocrites because they received tips about Foley's actions, but sat on the story for months until they were able to pile fuel on this pre-election bonfire. Then there are the gay-rights activists who may or may not have used the media to yank Foley out of the closet in order to help Democrats take control of Congress.

Many of these people are practicing what Lott calls the "saint or shut up" strategy when it comes to talking about public morality. They argue that only squeaky-clean people -- like Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and the pope -- have the right to make pronouncements about hot issues. Everyone else is supposed to keep quiet or they will be accused of hypocrisy.

The problem is that sin, and thus hypocrisy, is part of the human condition. Anyone who believes anything struggles to live up to those beliefs in the harsh light of day.

There are even times, argues Lott, when a little hypocrisy may do some good. Take, for example, the faithful who fail to notice that a bride is pregnant as she walks down the church aisle. Everyone knows, but pretends not to know, because the bride and groom are doing the right thing.

"It's a good thing when sinners continue to oppose sin, even if they are still struggling with sin in their own lives," he said. "Sometimes, hypocrisy is what allows sinful people to be decent while they try to do what's right."