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Sanctimony: A Political Vice from Which We Must Escape

Watching this quasi-religious mentality migrate leftward and displace more rational, humanistic values has been painful.”

I spent my youth attending evangelical Christian schools during the presidency of George W. Bush, arguably what will come to be seen as the peak of the Christian Right’s influence on American politics. For the most part, it was not pleasant. Among other things, the experience instilled in me a lasting hostility toward conservative priorities and religious faith. But the years since then have suggested that this hostility is rooted in something deeper and is not necessarily reserved for religion or even the Right. I have recognized that I have a profound, visceral hatred for sanctimony.

Sanctimony implies pretensions of moral superiority. To some extent, sanctimony is, therefore, unavoidable wherever moral ideals are at issue and the orthodoxies they buttress feel insecure. When I was a teenager, the loudest moralists were clearly on the Right, and their moralism was deep-fried in religious fundamentalism. Conservative Christians obsessed over abortion, gay marriage, and—possibly the silliest culture war ever fought on American soil—creationism. The neoconservative wing of the Republican Party represented another prominent source of sanctimony, with particularly disastrous results abroad. Every era has its pieties, and pieties naturally tend to generate more fanatics and conformists than heretics.

It may be that every brand of politics has its own pieties as well. Liberal sanctimony may have reached its boiling point during the presidency of Donald Trump, but it had been brewing well before. The millennium opened with a liberalism that differed very little from conservatism. Clintonian triangulation had neutered whatever vestiges of progressivism remained in the Democratic Party, while also shifting the entire American political spectrum toward the Right. Under President Barack Obama, Democrats compensated for this lack of substantive difference by embracing the most nauseatingly trite rhetoric imaginable. President Obama’s invocations of “the arc of history” as a source of long-term hope evoked a mix of Martin Luther King Jr. and Francis Fukuyama. However inspiring at first, the metaphor sounded increasingly saccharine as the culture war mutated and views of both history and the future darkened.  

The election of President Trump in November of 2016 appeared only to intensify moralism on the Left and center-left. Liberals, who had tired of defending the Obama administration, suddenly acquired a newfound self-righteousness in their largely hollow anti-Trumpism. Americans further Left experienced a similar surge of self-righteousness, but this was channeled into either support for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or hopes for more radical alternatives altogether. The sanctimonious high produced by this fervent atmosphere was probably bound to dip into fatigue, disillusionment, and infighting. In its wake emerged a growing sense that the arc of history bends not toward justice, but disappointment.

If different varieties of sanctimony could be classified—a taxonomy of sanctimonies, so to speak—two major kingdoms might be identified: optimistic and pessimistic. If Presidents Bush and Obama exemplified the former, the world since 2016 has been saturated with the latter. Senator Sanders’ twin campaigns notwithstanding, the political landscape has appeared devoid of hope for years now, and, as Naomi Klein observed, “Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” Fearful, pessimistic sanctimony is what fuels apocalypticism, moral panics, and—roll your eyes if you want—cancel culture. It has defined the mindset of fire-and-brimstone preachers, witch hunters, and all their modern and secular equivalents. They are guided by vindictiveness and vigilance, which are joined together, in a short-sighted war to eradicate the designated evils of the day. While still imploring skeptics and heretics to join true believers on the right side of history, it is ultimately a sanctimony adapted to a world with little future.

If sanctimony transcends political divisions, then so must any analysis of it (or response to it). One common thread connecting my early rejection of evangelicalism and subsequent disillusionment with left-liberal alternatives has been a deep discomfort with moralistic fanaticism. Perhaps this journey parallels the true arc of recent history—a volley of vigorously competing sanctimonious crusades, each propelled by lofty ideals, each shooting to the heights of optimism before inevitably plunging, one-by-one, into an abyss of cannibalistic pessimism. As such, shedding the weight of moralism may be our only hope for rising to the surface again.

Sanctimony can be employed to signal virtue, but it can also function as a veil concealing the same vices it projects onto the world. Bush-era evangelicals criticized Islamism incessantly, but their attacks deflected attention away from their own fundamentalist tendencies. And left-liberal accusations of intolerance and dogmatism on the Right—while usually true—often belie their own susceptibility to rigid groupthink. In fact, I would go further and suggest that sanctimony all too easily serves as the last refuge of scoundrels. Spacious enough to shelter its most extreme and intolerant adherents, it is also uniquely fortified to withstand reasoned critique from any angle. Moral panics in particular tend to erase nuance and suspend logical thinking in an atmosphere of fear. And faith carries an emotional power that is notoriously difficult to puncture as any persistent interrogation of a fundamentalist’s beliefs will demonstrate. Most importantly, sanctimony can conveniently preempt questions when questions are most needed.

At this point, cancel culture is a predictably rancorous topic, and much of the Left still denies the phenomenon even exists. But it clearly does. And this culture of moral condemnation and reflexive outrage that has almost completely taken over the 21st century Left would not be possible without sanctimony—buttressing an orthodoxy still vaguely Christian in its simplistic moralism and missionary zeal but refurbished with new pieties and new icons, repeating familiar warnings against new heresies and new sins. I was drawn to the Left early on because I saw religious trappings like these as arrogant, irrational, and potentially masking more cynical human motivations such as power, control, and revenge. I also saw them as both endemic to the Right and qualitatively conservative.

Watching this quasi-religious mentality migrate leftward and displace more rational, humanistic values has been painful. Broader doctrines proclaiming the inevitability of the rapture, revolution, or the end of history always sounded fanciful at best, but the last few years have solidified my latent skepticism toward orthodoxies and eschatologies of all kinds into genuine opposition. I hate fantasy parading as prophecy in the service of politics. I hate faith. I hate demands for faith. Over the last two decades, my faith in most things has drained away. Religious belief was an early casualty of this process, and socialist convictions are only the latest. The larger story of the 21st century has itself been one of hopes dashed and faith punished. Every major cause seems doomed to defeat or disillusionment. Crusades crash and burn. Gods fail. Sanctimony turns sour. And scoundrels find refuge in the wreckage.

But the potential for liberation may also be hiding within the debris. Intellectual straitjackets tend to be invisible, and they remain unrecognized until we are free of them. The possibility of a politics beyond ideology is one of the most derided notions on the millennial Left; it is commonly mocked as another vestigial piety from the neoliberal era, thus requiring removal. But, actually, a politics beyond sanctimony—less fervently ideological, less dismissive of reason, devoid of dogmatism, open to change, as free from religious mentalities and moralism as humanly possible—is both possible and badly needed. It might even be worth salvaging in the end.

Nigel Lloyd Alcorn is a freelance writer in Fresno, California.

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