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Sanctimoniousity (Now Officially a Word)

When Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, sanctimonious supporter of displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings, was stumped by Steve Coberts interview question, “What are the Ten Commandments,” I had to chuckle, but not without a touch of sadness. It is often the case that religiosity and spirituality are mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, the extremely religious are the last people to recognize hypocrisy in their beliefs.

I’ve seen this over and over. Don’t get me wrong – I know some very religious people who lead truly spiritual lives – they do and wish no harm to others. However, we have all read the stories of “men of religion” who have sinned rather egregiously. Visiting gay prostitutes after a sermon denouncing homosexuals is one of the most extreme examples – but we have all seen less obvious examples of sanctimonious blow hards living not-so-stellar personal lives.

These contradictions lie in the infinite capacity of humans to compartmentalize – they can be quite “good” in almost every area of their lives, but there is one area where they are able to rationalize and manipulate truth to fit a personal paradigm of “good” that any strongly ethical person (religious or not) would find disturbing at best.

As a young person, I was sent to a private school in my hometown (Seminole, Florida) for a few years – Keswick Christian School – because the public schools were having ‘unrest’ (polite way of saying racial tension – these were the early years of school busing). I was one of three Catholics in the school – the other two being my little sister and a girl who was to become a good friend an ally, Carol. I went to Sunday School, mass every Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation. I was a good little Catholic girl. And now I was at a good Catholic-hating Christian school.

Three years later my mother finally figured out this was a big mistake – I think when I tried to convert my Jewish friend she realized these people were brainwashing me into becoming a pious asshole. It was a horrifying moment for her I am sure – since tolerance was a big part of my mother’s religious beliefs. But what was I to do? I was 11 years old and had beaten into me (sometimes literally – with a paddle with holes drilled through it so the wind would pass through more quickly to give a faster swat) that anyone who didn’t follow THESE SPECIFIC BELIEFS was going straight to the burning fires of hell.

I now look back on my days at Keswick Christian School as a lesson in what it is like to be the victim of intolerance. The constant weird looks when I did the sign of the cross, the comments about my religion (You worship Mary), and rather rude treatment by teachers (went from a straight A student to a struggling student, and not so coincidentally became a straight A student at the next school I attended) all made me feel like a pariah doomed to damnation. These were really prejudiced people who hated everyone who did not believe what they believed – not exactly Jesus-like in their behavior.

That experience helped me understand what it feels like to be targeted by unreasonable people within a community. I’m sure it was nowhere near as bad as being the first black family in a white neighborhood – but it did teach me a valuable lesson about what it is like to be singled out. It is cruel and hateful. It is the opposite of Christian.

As an adult I have seen examples of this sanctimonious hypocrisy – although usually in subtler forms. It might be the hyper-religious adult who follows, oh say, 8 of the 10 commandments. They are horrified by “goddamn” but rationalize embezzlement (You shall not steal). They are faithful to their wife, yet say false things about other people (You shall not bear false witness).

If there is a divine grading system, I have to believe that God judges far more harshly the sins of people who most vociferously proclaim their piety than those of people who openly admit their frailities and work diligently to change their flaws.

There certainly wasn’t a preamble to the Ten Commandments saying, “Thou shalt follow more of these than thoust do not” – it’s 10 and 10 is what you are supposed to follow if you are truly and purely Christian.

I would imagine some of these people at times experience waves of shame at their behavior, but others most likely continue to rationalize it and create exceptions to the rules. It just reminds me of something I learned decades ago at that “Christian” school – sometimes the most Christian people are not religious at all.

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