A Lesson in Hypocrisy

It seems to me you guys could all benefit from some HARD FACTS about hypocrisy.

I know what you’re saying: “But Steve, you’re one of the biggest hypocrites I know!” Well, friend, in which case who better to write about what hypocrisy really is and how it really operates? It’s like learning about the prison system from an inmate.

First off, let’s clarify what hypocrisy is and what it is not. This part is essential. In the NT, we’re using the Greek word hupokrisis (or hupokrites), signifying a dissembler, an actor playing a feigned part. When Jesus says that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy, He means that it appears righteous to men but it is full of sin within. This is also what He means when He refers to them as whited sepulchres, which look pure on the outside but inside are full of rotting bones. I also like (and Wikipedia agrees) what Samuel Johnson says on the topic:

It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed ; and he that is most deficient in the duties of life, makes some atonement for his faults, if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example.

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practise ; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

Rambler 14

To summarize, hypocrisy is not just failing to practice what you preach, because it is not a vice to call good things good and evil things evil. If perfect behavior were a prerequisite to preaching the word, Sacrament Meetings would be a lot shorter and our pool of missionaries would definitely be reduced. Talk about raising the bar!

No, hypocrisy is something different; it involves deception of others, not deception of self. Politics can provide some helpful illustrations. But say if I’m an alcoholic, and I talk publicly about the importance of sobriety? Probably not hypocrisy. Sorry to the shamers the world; a lot of what you’re calling hypocrisy ain’t. Maybe it’s irony, certainly there’s a karmic element in there, but we can’t (and shouldn’t) disregard it when sinners talk about right and wrong. (Even when it’s Steve.)

This all came to mind the other day when I was talking with a friend about O.U.R. Rescue. They’re a charity group (founded by Mormons, largely former military) that launch operations around the world in which their ‘jump teams’ will break into a brothel or slaver’s compound, rescue women and children sold into slavery, and free them. O.U.R. stands for Operation Underground Railroad; a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine refers to the group as the New Abolitionists. Their methods are very, very American: former Navy SEALS and other military men use weapons and tactics of war to cut through diplomatic nonsense and help people. Their operations are hazardous and (probably) expensive. They are not able to help many, many people. There are criticisms: that white dudes should not be co-opting the language of American slavery for their charity; that they’re glory hounds; that not enough attention is paid to post-rescue aftermath; that they actually may hinder international diplomatic and political efforts. But these guys, who used to kick ass in the military, are now continuing to kick ass for a good cause. If you’ve seen the Taken movies, you know that the most boring part is when Liam Neeson is making copies or getting a foot massage; when he unleashes his very particular set of skills, all seems right in the world. That’s a bit facetious but these men are trained warriors, very good at what they do, and now they are quite possibly doing more good with those skills than ever.

I digress. The particular objection was that these guys are very conservative, traditional Mormons with very conservative views on women. That they are Mormons who definitely would not be on board with female ordination, and who probably are just fine with how women get treated in their own home cultures. That some of them, on a personal level, are macho jerks who don’t treat women well. That these guys are out rescuing women from slavery in Mexico and Thailand — while ignoring the plight of women closer to home, perpetuating some of the attitudes that ultimately contribute to treating women as objects. They’re hypocrites!

Well, after mansplaining to my friend the definitional niceties found in my opening paragraphs, we talked about it and a few things came out:

Steve: I guess my reply would be that you’re onto something, but the difference in how those women are being treated is truly extreme and I have no problem getting those poor people the hell out of there.

Friend: Their group also has more of the MLM feel to it. But this time there’s that added “rescuing girls from slavery” stuff. I don’t trust it.

Steve: I agree that it seems self-aggrandizing and super macho. But holy cow, these women are being abducted and sold as sex slaves. If they really are getting them out of there, part of me is willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re dicks.

Friend: I just believe there are better ways.

Steve: Yes. But nobody’s doing those things. In other words, yeah I think you are seeing the real irony that’s there, and it shouldn’t be ignored, but I also think they are doing something good, so I don’t know where that leaves it all.

Friend: And that’s life right?

Steve: pretty much. Mediocre people doing things in ways we might not like but it’s better than nothing.

I’m not going to call the O.U.R. Rescue guys hypocrites for a couple of reasons: first, they could seriously beat me up in a New York minute, and second, they’re doing good things that I cannot do. It’s like the guy in Priesthood whose opinions on Big Tent Mormonism drive me nuts but who is an excellent home teacher and great dad. I just don’t have standing (in the Civil Procedure sense) to complain. And that is how it goes a lot, I think, in any religion but especially Christianity: we are all called to the grace of God, all called to labor, and people are just going to do that work their own way and that’s that.


  1. Wait did they honestly feel that being sold as a sex slave was comparable to being against female ordination? This is what makes them hypocrites?

    I’m speechless.

  2. That’s not quite right. It’s not the female ordination part that matters.

  3. ok, that’s good to know, but it still seems quite the stretch. I mean I don’t know any of them at all, but to call them hypocrites because they have conservative views on gender roles just seems crazy.

  4. perhaps I just don’t understand the whole reasons being expressed here.

  5. Yes. I’d agree that it doesn’t apply. It’s more about how we view others than anything else. But it would be simpler if everyone were perfect. It would be simpler if these guys also were huge women’s rights activists and also fought for equal pay. My point is that life isn’t simple and that’s just how it goes.

  6. I agree. I also agree that the word hypocrite gets thrown around way too much in cases that don’t apply.

  7. Then we pretty much agree across the board, and you are a person of class and taste.

  8. Also, those guys are working in grandiose ways with cops in foreign countries who probably profit and benefit from trafficking, because that’s how it works. Large scale busts like that are all for show. But maybe they do some good? I don’t know.

  9. Right. But they doing SOMETHING and at least are drawing popular attention to the problem. If one kid has a rape-free night because of them, isn’t that good?

  10. I absolutely guarantee that there are nonprofits doing great work in this space, on shoestring budgets, that is being hindered–and perhaps even harmed–by the way O.U.R. operates. It’s always like this with Men of Action™.

    It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing, even with the right reasons at heart.

  11. I want people freed from slavery, but I want the liberators to conform to my views of gender, social justice, and nonviolence. Otherwise it doesn’t count.

  12. It was my understanding that women are also involved in O.U.R., not sure to what extent, but i think that may change the conversation somewhat

  13. Jason K. says:

    I don’t know beans about O.U.R., so I won’t comment about them or their practices, but I personally hope that in the final reckoning God will take the good I’ve done and not mind so much about the bad, and I believe that charity calls us to judge each other the same way. I mean, if God has to wait for us to act correctly all the time and with pure motives before we can get to heaven, it’ll be crickets up there basically forever. OTOH, the Gospels show Jesus’s disciples consistently failing to understand what he was really about, and yet he could make use of them. That should give hope to us all, and it should incline us to be kind to people (including ourselves) who fail to understand correctly, to do the right thing, or to do it for the right reasons.

  14. lastlemming says:

    Dan E
    I want people freed from slavery, but I want the liberators to conform to my views of gender, social justice, and nonviolence. Otherwise it doesn’t count.

    Moroni 7

    6 For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

    7 For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

    Setting aside Dan’s sarcasm, can somebody explain to me how his statement differs from Moroni’s? (I’m actually on Dan’s side here, but I’m still wondering.)

  15. Because the actions make a difference. It may profit them nothing personally but it makes a difference to everyone else.

  16. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    APM, Could you elaborate on how groups like OUR hurt instead of help? I’d like to learn more about that and be able to better discern who’s helping and who’s not.

  17. lastlemming says:

    So hypocrites can help build Zion even if they themselves are going to hell? (“Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer.)

  18. Yes, exactly. They can and they do.

  19. Brian F says:

    Steve, I think you are right. In a sense, I think that what a lot of people call hypocrisy, or decry people doing good is more “they don’t believe everything I believe, and so therefore they aren’t really doing good.” Who is to say that everything I believe is right, or you believe is right, is truly correct? I’m human, and I change my mind on things in the face of new experience or knowledge. Does that make the good that 19 year old Brian did hypocrisy, just because 31 year old Brian has a different opinion on things? I don’t think anyone agrees 100% with anyone else on every single issue. This may be a straw man, but it seems to me that people often use differences of opinions as a stick to beat up other people and ignore the good that they do.

  20. Michael says:

    I’d also point out that OUR gives all credit to the cops/local authorities in whatever country they operate. OUR goes in, looks like they are buying children for the weekend, gets them secure, then gives the signal to the cops to bust the place. OUR guys are then in the building to secure children and weapons, and the OUR guys get put in handcuffs and led off to jail, where they are quickly released and they head on out. (Very simplified take here, post-traumatic counseling and medical services provided, etc. etc. and so forth).

    There is a big difference between “I am a twelve year old girl who is raped multiple times a night” and “I am a twelve year old girl who isn’t allowed to pass the sacrament at church”. An upstanding guy with some elite military training might be able to do something about the first statement. He can do absolutely nothing about the second statement.

  21. Good post. This resonated with me, “And that is how it goes a lot, I think, in any religion but especially Christianity: we are all called to the grace of God, all called to labor, and people are just going to do that work their own way and that’s that.”

    I like Joseph Smith’s quote, “I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else . . . knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.”

    And that’s the point right? We are SUPPOSED to think differently and irritate each other. All of us have different life experiences, receive different callings and get different answers to common prayers. Only when we learn to appreciate different perspectives can we become polished.

    God loves us all, regardless of our beliefs on OUR, ordination of women, girl’s camp, scouting, gay marriage, and all of the other things we let divide us. And the goal is to be like Him.

  22. Does this organization launch raids in the United States? (I couldn’t tell from a cursory glance at their website). If they don’t, I could see a charge of hypocrisy there–that they are willing to operate as a paramilitary organization in other countries but not in the United States. But that would be an issue of American exceptionalism, not sexism.

    I’m not sure why someone would criticize them for adopting the language of antebellum abolitionists, many of them were White. Indeed, John Brown would approve.

  23. I attempted to make the case a few weeks ago in GD that most of our modern accusations of hypocrisy actually don’t qualify. On top of that I think that even accusations that don’t really meet the definition have somehow become the worst possible sin in our culture. It didn’t go over well.

  24. See, I read Moroni’s statement more as a comment on human nature and the need for grace.

    “[A] man, being evil, cannot do that which is good.” In other words, because men are evil (natural man is an enemy to God and all that), we cannot make ourselves righteous through our actions–not that we can’t do good things that benefit other people, but when we do such things, it is “not counted unto [us] for righteousness,” if we remain unconverted and therefore act out of some motivation other than real intent to do good. The message seems to be that because we are evil, we cannot act with “real intent,” unless we become converted through the grace of Christ. Therefore, if somebody is acting with real intent, grace is acting through him, whether he realizes it or not.

    Moroni’s point, as I understand it, is simply this:It’s no good trying to make yourself righteous through your actions, because it is impossible for you to “do that which is good” if you are still “evil,” or in other words, if you have not allowed the grace of Christ to change you through repentance.

    But Moroni clarifies that “good” in the sense that he is using it, has a specific meaning: something is good if it is “counted unto him for righteousness.” So Moroni isn’t saying that a person acting with impure motivations can’t “do good” in the sense that we often use it: to do things that benefit other people. He’s only saying that such actions aren’t righteous unless they also come with a heart that has been changed by grace through repentance.

  25. Michael, “absolutely nothing”? That’s absolutely not true.

  26. JKC, exactly. Which is why evil people can still build Zion (unwittingly, even).

    Michael, you’re right that these guys are using their skills to help people, but that doesn’t foreclose them doing some good locally as well.

  27. hinduFriend says:

    OUR is racist. The age of consentin Mexico is 12 but they were busting up transactions involving 15 year-olds as “trafficking.”

  28. I’m fine with that.

  29. Joel Winter says:

    I know the difference in my own life experience between sincerity and hypocrisy. I cannot say for anyone else but I can point to times when my “apparently good” actions were not counted to me for righteousness. I have knelt beside my bed to give the appearance to my wife that all was well with me and feigned prayer. I have been a hypocrite. I have knelt beside my bed and really tried to get in the mood to pray and still felt that I failed to get in the right mood and gave up. I have knelt beside my bed and plead to feel in prayer like I remember feeling in prayer in times past and failed. And then, when I was repentant and ready, having set my foot back on a course of obedience, my simple prayer were sincere and I felt that they were counted to me for righteousness. In this life “being evil” is fortunately an impermanent thing–there but for the grace of God. I’ve been there. Haven’t we all? I know the difference. Moroni gave us a tool to measure our own selves and no one else.

  30. Michael says:


    I suppose you do have a point. A man could, theoretically, rise through the ranks and serve as a Bishop, Stake President, Regional Representative, Seventy, and become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and then make it enough of an issue that he could go into a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and present that it needed to be an issue of earnest fasting and prayer, and take the issue to the Lord. But, that takes a long time, and then the twelve-year-old girl in my hypothetical example has twelve-year-old grandchildren of her own.

    The Church is very resistant to change. It has been only recently that we’ve moved from the belief from Elder Packer that “despair is a result of sin” to Elder Holland and “depression may be a medical condition, and you may consult with your Bishop and doctor to see if pharmaceutical treatment might be appropriate”.

    Every year, during August, I drive about 40 miles and help cater a golf tournament that raises money to support an orphanage in Haiti. I do not support our local Boy Scout council by becoming a Friend of Scouting. If that means I am a hateful, spiteful, evil person who couldn’t care less about the precious boys in my own ward being provided with the opportunity to build monkey bridges and go geocaching, I’m fine with that label. There are other local causes I support either through labor or money.

    Economics is the study of how we try to fulfill unlimited wants with limited resources. Causes just within my ward could take my entire salary and all my time, and I still wouldn’t make a dent. It is up to each person to decide how they might personally feel like they are making the biggest impact given the restrained resources they have. If OUR figures they can get the biggest impact for their time, money and effort by working in other countries, then fine. I’ve heard the founder discuss how they do work within the US too, but he’s described how he has to be a lot more secretive about those efforts. Tinkling cymbals, sounding brass, and undercover efforts I suppose.

    Sometimes our good works are worldwide, sometimes national, sometimes local, and sometimes our charity needs to be focused within the walls of our own home.

  31. Michael, I understand. But I disagree with your conclusion that sometimes charity needs to be focused within the walls of our own home. It always needs to be there, failing which the external efforts cannot compensate.

  32. PS I’m sure you’re a hateful, spiteful, evil person for plenty of other reasons!

  33. Michael, there is that senario but there’s also an option of speaking up in meetings, speaking out in public, standing up for women in our church. Also education–teaching the youth about the importance of gender equality. We can certainly tell your 12 year old girl she’d be worth fighting for too–even if her plight isn’t as physically dangerous.

  34. Angela C says:

    This post reminds me in part of a conversation that is common in India: Was Gandhi a good man? While most Westerners would respond with a resounding and unqualified “Yes!” the reason it makes for good dinner conversation in India is that Gandhi was also very flawed, being neither a good father nor a good husband.

  35. This attempted redefining of hypocrisy is self-serving. The example quoted of the alcoholic, though not complete, is indeed hypocrisy. It wouldn’t be if the speaker says that he continues to struggle with the issue, expresses sympathy with his fellow human beings who also struggle, perhaps sharing in ways to overcome it (such as AA), but to run around preaching on the evils of alcoholism while a drunk himself is most certainly the very definition of hypocrisy. Pontificating and expounding on the evils of something in the name of God is a haughty endeavor that should not be practiced at all by even those who live them. Such is not the way of God, it is not the way that Christ showed, and in fact, does more harm than good. There are many who bear the burden of having chased God’s children away by their ridiculous misrepresentations of God as a bigot, a hateful, vengeful God, and for that they will indeed have to answer. Christ was quite clear how he viewed those kind of people, and what they will face. It should be obvious to all that you are one with God without you even opening your mouth, and the moment you do you are lost.

  36. Uh, ok.

  37. We’re not really disagreeing, btw. But I appreciate your vigor.

  38. demosgen says:

    Steve, I love the post, but this statement is beyond the pale: “If they really are getting them out of there, part of me is willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re dicks.”

    Really? Dicks? Do you know these people? How about this instead: “If they really are getting them out of there, I am willing to accept that they are fully flawed human beings.”

  39. Consider it shorthand:

    1. I don’t know these people (at least, not all of them)
    2. I was assuming, for the sake of argument in the post, that my friend’s objections about them are correct. Sorry if that was unclear.
    3. ‘Dicks’ is vulgar. Sorry.

  40. Steve’s crazy, but we know that already. And despite the obvious absurdity of his argument, we’re all here thinking and writing about building Zion because he wrote it. This thinking and writing about Zion is a good thing. So it appears Steve’s argument is right, not in spite of its ludicrous nature, but rather as a direct result of it.

  41. Booyah!

  42. imreadyformycloseupmrdemille says:

    I’m going to disagree with several people’s interpretation of Moroni 7 and posit that it’s actually not possible for us to do unadulterated good. I think that’s compliant with K.Benjamin’s estimation of unprofitable servants too. Even if we tried to do good all of our days, we would still screw enough things up with poor foresight and unintended consequences that we’d have an unconquerable deficit. Only through the atonement (grace?) can even our best efforts be graced with the good fortune of actually building the kingdom. Which certainly isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to do good, but we certainly should never arrive at a point where we can feel pride for our own merit.

  43. If you *really* wanted to be vulgar you could call them Samaritans.

  44. I see what you did there.

  45. hinduFriend says:

    To OP:
    So, if Mexico sets Age of consent at 12, USA at 18 and India at 25, how are you going to decide whether OUR paramiliraty activity is OK? Seems overly entitled for you to choose your current LDS standard as normative.
    I say this as an-LDS – ‘symp’ tho not gonna join up

  46. Mmmmkay.

  47. Heather Arnita says:

    My concern with OUR is that they just seem concerned about making the big busts and they don’t make sure that there are agencies set up to help the rescued girls. People rescued from sex trafficking need a lot of help after, or counseling, job training, housing, etc. In an article I read about them the OUR guy seemed unconcerned with the fact that the local government isn’t equipped to help these girls after they are rescued and a significant percentage of them are revictimized. They aren’t really rescued after one big bust. But the OUR guys go home and leave these girls unaided. It’s disturbing to me.

  48. I’ve come to realize over the past year or two that much of what US consider pure “charity work” in developing countries actually has opposite negative effects. The way we spend so much money to adopt foreign children or how we fund orphanages? it actually disincentiveizes the local country from strengthening their own social nets and systems that would keep their own families together. I heard that some directors of orphanages just take children away from poor families with a promise they’ll be better cared for. When there’s so much $ in the adoption/orphan system it creates negative externalities.

    I attended the Rexburg free screening of The Abolitionists that had Ed Smart and many of the filmmakers. 1) I’m uncomfortable of how it’s framed with getting pics with these people on the red carpet 2) the movie glorified the men as saviors and was really mormon faith centric/proselytizing 3) I believe the issue is systemic and anyone serious about the issue should address it systemically 4) they presented the story that once they made a bust in a certain city, they went back later and try to get underage girls again, they weren’t able to so they conclude, “see we fixed the problem here” (check that box) 5) I was uncomfortable with how they counted the number of lives they “saved” 6) I could go on, but I won’t

    Are they doing good? yes, i’m sure they are. Do their actions also have negative consequences? I think so. There were enough sketchy things and bias in the video for me to be uncomfortable. And there are plenty of other anti-sex-slavery organizations out there that OUR isn’t the only game in town. I don’t believe for a second that there’s no one else out there “doing those things.” Off of the top of my head is the Love 146 organization and many, many local organizations that are run by natives (and many former slaves themselves) in their home countries that you can donate to (I learned about them in the Half the Sky documentary/book/website). I’m much more comfortable with the listen, learn, support path than the show up, kick a**, save the day one.

  49. lastlemming, I think that when Moroni says “a man being good” or “a man being evil,” he does not mean that there are good people and bad people and the good ones can do only good and the evil ones can do only evil. Big problem with that reading: We would all count as evil. Source: Jesus (Luke 18:19), Paul (Romans 3:10), Amulek (Alma 34:9), etc. etc.

    Instead, I think Moroni refers to one’s heart and intentions at the time of the act. I think he’s saying that what matters is not what you do but why you do it—an idea much more in line with everything Jesus taught, and also one that allows the possibility that flawed people can do at least some things with pure intentions.

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