Feet of Clay

I was interested to read in the New York Times Magazine this weekend an interview with Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. It was a timely interview in some respects, including this bit:

Q: What do you make of Ted Haggard, who just stepped down as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, after he was accused of cavorting with a gay escort?

A: I think it’s very sad. We’re always surprised when we see people’s clay feet. Our culture seems to delight in exposing them. I think we have a prurient interest in other people’s failings.

Why are we surprised when we see the clay feet of others? Allow me if you will a brief pontification.

The expression “clay feet” is gaining popularity, but it has ancient origins in the vision of Nebuchadnezzar, as interpreted by Daniel:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image … his feet part of iron and part of clay. … And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. (Daniel 2)

The statue represents earthly kingdoms, which at their feet are weak, rendering them susceptible to being destroyed by the stone cut without hands. In modern context, the phrase can refer to governments, organizations, or even individuals who appear strong and mighty but at their base are weak and fragile. As the usage slips more and more towards applying to individuals, “feet of clay” becomes a metaphorical device to represent hypocrisy. I believe this to be an inappropriate twisting from the Bible, but so be it.

Why this interest in the prurient private lives of others, especially those in positions of power? First, I don’t believe that this is a recent trend; we have always found entertainment and meaning in the tragic flaws of the great, whether in Aeschylus’s Oresteia or in later works. We witness our own Agamemnons tread upon the sacred purple cloth, and when their hubris destroys them we too may cathartically exorcise this pride.

That said, the news media are not ancient Greeks, and the heat and smoke of the modern sexualized scandal is no substitute for the light of sorrowing for the downfall of the great. We have lost, I believe, the ability to have compassion for leaders and prominent people, to mourn as they mourn and to learn and grow from their trials. Ted Haggard’s life has been destroyed; and we scoff and say that he had it coming? Where is our capacity to let these emotional events work within us, change us, and purify us?

Maybe we are so desperate for this internal change and the ecstatic feelings that accompany tragedy that we instinctually search out downfall and crave it. Somehow, though, I’m worried that we have waxed too cold. I certainly didn’t blink an eyelash at Haggard’s suffering, even while watching the humiliating video of him being grilled in front of his family. Catharsis has now been wholly replaced with schadenfreude. Is this incapacity to feel pity the feet of clay of western civilization?


  1. M. Minnifield says:

    When I was a boy growing in Oklahoma City I would go to the show on Saturday. My favorite was John Wayne. It didn’t matter what kind of movie it was: cowboy picture, war movie, I was with him all the way. Except for The Quiet Man; that one bored the hell out of me. By the time I was nine years old, I was walking and talking like the Duke. Then one day, the walls came crashing down. I was playing army with the Marshall boys, Jed and Jeff, in Bailey’s Woods. Jeff said kind of off-handedly that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting, didn’t throw his own punches, didn’t take his own hits or his own falls. Well, I kicked the hell out of the Marshall boys. Then I ran all the way home and asked my daddy if it was true that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting. He said yes. John Wayne was my hero and the Marshall boys gave him feet of clay.

    Now I don’t give a damn if Walt Whitman kicked with his right foot or left foot or that J. Edgar Hoover took it better than he gave it or Ike was true blue to Mamie or that God knows who had trouble with the ponies or the bottle. We need our heroes. We need men we can look up to, believe in. Men who walk tall. We cannot chop them off at the knees just to prove they are like the rest of us. Now Walt Whitman was a pervert. But he was the best poet that America ever produced. And if he was standing here today and somebody called him a fruit or a queer behind his back or to his face or over these airwaves, that person would have to answer to me. Sure, we’re all human. But there’s damn few of us who have the right stuff to be called heroes.

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I don’t think “feet of clay” was being used in that quote to discuss hypocrisy, I think it was simply referring to the weaknesses of the individual.

  3. PDoE, you’re right, although it still leads us to think of hypocrisy — the reason that Haggard’s particular clayish feet interest us is because of the stark contrast between public and private. In other words, his hypocrisy.

  4. We have lost, I believe, the ability to have compassion for leaders and prominent people, to mourn as they mourn and to learn and grow from their trials.

    Amen, nicely said.

  5. Northern Exposure was filmed here in the Seattle area, maybe I saw you around Mr. Minnifield. There is a difference between the poet and the prophet, though. Perhaps some would look at the new Mormon History as exposing the ugly feet of our progenitors, but I tend to think not. I think schadenfreude is probably a sin, and as we suffer with those that suffer, we also have this hope that those with more claylike feet than is acceptable not accept positions that require less.

  6. Bishop Schori has a prophetic voice. She may well hold that church together against all odds.

  7. I had never heard of Ted Haggard before I heard of his sins, and I suppose the same goes for the bulk of those who know his name for a little bit before we forget it. In contrast, I moved into a stake a couple years after the stake president apostatized in a dramatic way. And there was his former wife like a widow. People didn’t talk about it much, and when they did, the pained, confused expression was a lot closer to Greek tragedy than to supermarket check-out magazine voyeurism.

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    Movie recommendation: Jesus Camp

    Info here: http://movies.aol.com/movie/jesus-camp/27214/main

    Ted Haggard is featured in this documentary about an Evangelical training camp for children. The widely broadcast clip where he speaks into the camera ominously saying “I know what you did last night…” was taken from this film.

    Jesus Camp is done from a secular perspective but doesn’t come across as just a critical polemic. Would be curious to hear how an LDS audience responded to it. I found it disturbing and sad.

  9. If I recall, in the Book of Mormon, Moroni writes that the Gentiles lack charity and the Lord seems to say something that concedes that as a fact.

  10. Mike, you should check out the discussion of that film at the BTimes.

    Right now in the LDS Headlines on the sidebar there are several links that perfectly highlight this post – the items on the author of the Tennis Shoes series. Kind of voyeuristic, but now days, that is what News is all about.

  11. J., precisely so. I guess there is a kind of schadenfreude for that man — those of us who hate those kinds of books will feel vindication of some sort. But upon reflection, I’m worried that those feelings are really very wrong.

  12. In the sense of the post, feet of clay are the implication of another sin: idolatry.

    We need love and compassion. We don’t need heroes. Why would we rely on the arm of flesh when we have the atonement?

    Ted Haggart has a tremendous energy that benefitted many people. It turns out that his insecurities and contradictions were the source of his intensity. Unfortunately, Haggart justified himself by going after those people who were the most like him.

    Ted Haggart’s life is like a Shakespearean drama. Dealing with his self-loathing, Haggart directed aggression against others to bring about his self-destruction.

    I hope that Haggart will embrace the self-knowledge that science offers him. Otherwise, current events will not be the last chapter of his tragedy.

    Love and enlightenment can save him. Denial and ignorance will lead to further self-destruction.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    Ted Haggard’s story is a very old one. There are so many who walked that path before him: Roy Cohen, Rudolph Hess, et. al. The most vocal condemnations of homosexuals have oh-so-often been issued by men later caught visiting Sodom from time to time themselves. It has always been thus. Personally, I think this sad tendency (and its corollary, schadenfreude) are both due to the Fall. Neither will exist in the CK.

  14. Hey Mike,

    Happy Thanksgiving to you my friend.

    Are there any studies that prove that ministers or politicians that are strongly opposed to Homosexuality are quite likely to be homosexual themselves?

    I ask because your #13 is a common response. I have never seen any evidence that its in fact a reality.

  15. Hey bbell,
    That’s a very interesting question. You’re right, it’s commonly accepted as fact yet I wonder if there’s any evidence beyond anecdotal. I’ll have to look into it. I think it’s a broader concept anyway: Often those most vehemently opposed to some vice (gambling, drinking, whatever) seem to have struggled with it themselves.

    It makes sense that someone who has experienced the negative consequences of drinking might support restrictive alcohol laws, for example.

    This only becomes problematic in cases like Haggard’s, where judgementalism, lying and hypocrisy are involved.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

  16. The prolem with hypocrisy is the cure. All people with moral absolutes fail to achieve their ideals. The gaps are the “feet of clay”.

    The solution for most is to abandon the ideals. Best not be criticized for not being able to live up to them.

    No it won’t surprise me if Ted Haggard comes out and says he is a gay man and starts a “healing” ministry to gays. It will certainly be the fastest route to “social redemption”. It will make a lot of people feel better if he does.

    Well for me the moral absolutes are God’s and my failings are mine. I won’t deny God in order to cover up my failings. D&C 121:37

  17. Steve Evans says:

    georgeD, thanks as ever for illustrating my point.

  18. George #16,

    Ideals are not the problem in Haggart’s case. It isn’t superhuman to live without meth and prostitutes. Haggart’s problem is that he is in denial.

  19. 18 Ideals are not the problem? I am not sure I understand what you mean Hellmut. I think Ted Haggard’s ideals (except for a certain lack of charity) were just fine. His capacity to live up to them was and is a problem but it doesn’t invalidate his ideals.

  20. Actually, it does invalidate what he preached. His former testimony is null and void.

  21. George #19,

    There are millions of men that live without prostitutes and methamphetamines, George. That’s not such a difficult ideal. Therefore the claim that Haggard failed because his ideals were too challenging is wrong.

    It is difficult, however, to live a balanced life if one is in denial about nature. Haggard’s denial is based on the notion that he knows the will of God. Rejecting reason and observation Haggard elevates his imagination over God’s creation.

    That attitude is self-destructive. We should not blame God for Haggard’s stupidity and arrogance. They are vices. Humility and authenticity are ideals.

    A man that ridicules evolution and sex education is not principled. He is just backwards. Had Haggard been more reasonable then he might have gotten into less trouble.

    Haggard would not have married a woman whom he can never cherish as a husband. He would not have needed to twist his mind into pretzels to pursue gay sex. Less stress would have reduced the need for illegal substances.

    Of course, Haggard also might have been less wealthy and admired. Those neither validate us in the eyes of God nor are they principles, especially not if we make our living by demagoguing vulnerable minorities.

    Jesus confronted the powerful. He lived among the poor, broke bread with the publicans, and associated with prostitutes. His gospel is about love.

    Haggard was a businessman. Christ is a servant. Haggard is in denial. Christ gives us the truth to set us free. Haggard loathes himself. Christ loves him. Haggard persecutes those who are most like him. Christ forgives us.

    One way or another, we all fall short with respect to love. Haggard’s case stands out because his repentance merely requires reason. The fact that reason appears to be out of Haggard’s reach indicates that his upbringing has crippled his identity.

    Haggard does not need to reject his ideals. He needs to deal with his socialization. Humility is the key.

    Unlike imagination, reason and evidence are factors beyond us. Justifying our ignorance of nature in terms of biblical literalism is a manifestation of naïve arrogance. Subjecting our opinions to the constraints of reason and evidence is a humble act.

    Ignorance is neither heroic nor glorious. It’s tragic. Our ignorance does not reflect the will of God. Often, submission to reason and evidence is a precondition to healing. Engaging one’s socialization requires an effort that borders on the superhuman. May be, that’s where the atonement comes in.

  22. MikeInWeHo says:

    Well put, Hellmut. Thanks for taking the time to post that thoughtful comment.

  23. 20 Yes his (Ted Haggards’s) testament is suspect because of his behavior but his ideals are not. His testimony can be redeemed by acknowledging his sin and the correctness of his ideals in spite of his behavior. Were it not so, no once could bear witness of God. It is in confessing our sins that we truly acknowledge him.

    21 Hellmut Please don’t ascribe to me things I didn’t say but which your imagination wishes I had said.

  24. My apologies, George. The only thing I meant to ascribe to you is the statement that Haggart failed because his ideals were too lofty.

    That’s just not the case. Haggart cannot succeed because he is in denial.

    The purpose of the post is to make sense of the Haggart story in light of two competing claims. I am attempting to do that by exploring the implications of the claims in light of the gospels and the research on homosexuality.

  25. I don’t think his ideals were too lofty at all. Thank you for acknowledging that. I think that they were correct ideals. The only people that I can imagine who would say that they were too lofty *might* be homosexuals and drug addicts.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    Yeah, those homosexuals and drug addicts are sure to have some wacky notions about a man of lofty ideals like Haggard.

  27. Thanks for proving my point (however indirectly) Mike in West Hollywood

  28. MikeInWeHo says:

    You’re welcome, georgeD.

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