In Matthew 6, there are several behaviors called out as public displays of righteousness:
- Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them (v. 1)
- And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. (v. 5)
- Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. (v.16)
Each of these behaviors is designed to gain the approval of men, to be seen to be righteous without having to actually be righteous. In each of these cases, the Savior condemns the behavior and says “They have their reward,” meaning that they will not receive a heavenly reward because instead they are seeking an earthly reward for appearing to do the right thing.
Because people are still psychologically motivated to get praise of men and because doing the right thing can be unpopular but appearing to do the right thing carries an immediate reward, hypocrisy continues to be a very popular Christian trait. Examples I can readily think of:
- A man in one of the wards I was in years ago made a big deal about how big his tithing check was and what a bite it was to write that big a check. “Ooh, boy, you don’t realize how blessed you are until you find yourself writing such a big check.” He made this comment pointedly in front of several people.
- On my mission, I gave a particularly rousing talk at a mission conference about the allure of the numbers and that missionaries were going to great lengths, including “snaking baptisms” from other missionaries to gain status on the “yellow sheet” (a monthly list showing who had baptized and ranking based on how many consecutive months of success missionaries had–consistently baptizing was generally required to obtain or retain a leadership position).
- A woman online was talking about being asked to be Primary President, but her bishop wanted her to change her hair color and remove her multiple ear piercings “to be a good example,” implying that her lack of conformity was a bad example.
The desire for approval doesn’t always mean aspiring to leadership either. Pandering to the base is an example of leaders who seek the approval of their fanbase. Pandering to the base means you give the people what they want, and the people in turn respond with love for the speaker (or in the case of politics, votes and donations that increase the speaker’s sphere of influence). Pandering implies that you are seeking that group’s approval, not that you are genuinely complimenting the group. You are making them feel justified, feeding their sense of entitlement or their notion of being right, and you are doing so because it makes you feel loved and appreciated. The base you are pandering to refers to both the core constituency as well as the base instincts of that group.
In the book The Fountainhead, the protagonist Dominique Francon is assigned to write an article on life in the slums. She gives two different speeches, one to the impoverished, and another to the wealthy slum lords. In both speeches, she refuses to pander to the audience, decrying the slum lords for the deplorable conditions of their tenements, undermining the altruistic image they want to portray, and pointing out to the poor the ways in which they have waited in filth and sloth to be rescued rather than making the best of their difficult situation. Her exasperated editor asks why she couldn’t have just given each speech to the other group, a question she finds amusing, and which reveals the problem with pandering.
It has been said that the media should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This statement has also been aptly applied to our church experience. If the gospel doesn’t incite us to examine ourselves and to strive to do better, what’s the point of it? If church tells us that the world is wicked, but “all is well in Zion” and lulls us to sleep and self-congratulation, then we have our reward.
Of course, the trick is that everyone is both afflicted and comfortable. We all have struggles, and we all find comfort in some things. The real watch-out, the time to take notice, is whenever you are doing the easier thing without feeling strong conviction, doing the thing the group rewards, and even assuaging yourself by claiming it’s difficult. It’s not difficult to go along with the crowd, to speak the party line. As Mormons we have a tendency to mistake conformity and obedience for courage when they are usually the opposite. Conformity makes you smaller; it hides you from scrutiny. Obedience without conviction or principle is no compliment to either the master who requires it or the servant who gives it.
When church members make remarks about the very elect being deceived or the sorting of the wheat from the tares, if they are casting themselves in the role of the wheat or the elect, guess what? They are comforting the comfortable (themselves) and afflicting the afflicted (those whose principles prevent them from conforming). There’s a reason we use the term self-righteous to describe these individuals: because only God judges who is righteous.
For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7