There seems to be a lot of grumbling around the pickleball courts and pinochle tables about the apathy of today’s youth. Why do millennials and Gen Z show so little interest in politics and religion?
Jesus may have just provided the answer: “Woe to you hypocrites…you serpents! brood of vipers! (Matthew 23).
While “woe” rarely comes out of the mouths of young people today, here is a statement from Jesus that even the atheists among young Americans can say “amen” to. In fact, if there’s one statement from Jesus that resonates most with young people of all generations, his condemnation of hypocrites is a strong candidate. Let’s be honest: nobody likes a hypocrite, but the younger generations seem particularly sensitive to his corrosive power.
After years of reading academic essays and talking to students, the perception of hypocrisy is also at the root of political and religious apathy. Nothing has tarnished the reputation of modern Christianity among my students more than the embrace of many virulent Christians for the thrice-divorced, misogynist, “never had to ask for forgiveness” Donald Trump.
Young Americans raise their hands and ask, “What’s the point of voting?” whenever popular politicians take bribes or are exposed as caring more about their re-election than their moral compass. My students constantly tell me that if older generations want to know why younger generations are apathetic, look in the mirror.
Hypocrisy is so corrosive because it undermines social trust, which is the engine of democracy and the necessary condition for healthy religious communities. When social trust recedes, cynicism fills the void and cynicism eventually breeds apathy. Although the perception of widespread hypocrisy is not the only driver of apathy among my students, its role is far more important than those on the pickleball court realize.
Of course, the sad connection between religion and hypocrisy seems as old as the first stone altar. Today, when a priest assaults a child or a pastor flees with the secretary or an imam uses the religion of peace to advocate violence, the damage extends far beyond the immediate victims. .
Their stories quickly spread via social media until “the church” in some online feeds was nothing more than a collection of scandalous stories from across the United States and around the world. Students rarely ask me if I’ve heard of the good things that this or that rabbi or priest does, but they always love to share steamy stories of temptation and abuse of spiritual authority. When looking for hypocrisy in religion, it is almost a dogma that it is not difficult to find examples.
Election season seems to make vast swaths of America a special kind of lunatic, but it’s also a time when people make the kind of juicy justifications that younger generations consider rank hypocrisy:
When the brave people of Bible-belt Georgia want to win the Senate so badly that they support a candidate whose own life embodies the opposite of his espoused positions, young people pay attention.
When members of the Los Angeles City Council espouse progressive values of equality in public, then disparage other minorities in private as part of a ploy to gerrymand neighborhoods in their favor, young people pay attention.
When local public figures preach fairness and unity while funding PACs dedicated to negative campaigning and vilification, young people pay attention.
In this political season, wouldn’t it be nice not to let short-term opportunism or party loyalty trump voting for character candidates?
Just because someone’s promised votes might align with our political positions doesn’t mean we should discount their behavior in the public sphere. When will we learn that consistency is a currency that pays dividends over time, even if it can hurt our immediate goals?
There is an old saying among early Christians: “You get the priest you deserve.” Well, until we reward politicians who choose to care for all rather than divide and conquer, we have won the current political climate, where smearing opponents seems the only thing that unifies our representatives. If we are to regain social trust, let us pledge not to reward candidates who cynically appeal to the worst of our social instincts, but to publicly support candidates whose character aligns with the best angels in our nature.
We cannot simultaneously say that we want a more civil society and less polarization while supporting candidates whose electoral strategy relies on misleading advertisements and dark money-funded political action committees whose stated purpose is to slander, mock and distort the other side. We get the politicians we deserve, so this campaign cycle, reward those who earn our trust by the way they run their campaigns.
The voices of Jesus and of American youth are crying out across our county and country, “Woe to you hypocrites! Is anyone listening?
Contributing columnist Stephen Lloyd-Moffett is a professor of religious studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.