Just before reciting what has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6, Jesus drops some uncomfortable truths about hypocrisy. He says: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them . . . do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing on the street corners to be seen by others . . . but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
In the politically charged early decades of the 21st century, there is a new term to describe the public performance of righteousness. These days, it’s called “virtue signaling.”
Virtue signaling is when you share your opinion on a social or political issue simply to get praise or acknowledgment from people who share that point of view. It’s the social media equivalent of praying in public.
However, just like the terms “politically correct” or “champagne socialist” before it, “virtue signaling” has become a shorthand to dismiss a whole set of ideas held by a wide group of people. It has become political.
Take, for example, what critics say about actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a climate-change activist. When he – or any activist, for that matter – speaks about climate change, their views are written off by their critics as virtue signaling because they own gas-powered cars, or take planes to conferences. “See,” the critics say, “They don’t believe what they say – otherwise they wouldn’t fly or drive anywhere. All their comments about climate are just virtue signaling.”
If you express just about any progressive belief – whether that’s supporting Black Lives Matter, or wage equality, or LGTBQ rights, or alternative energy – someone will accuse you of virtue signaling. Or, increasingly, of being “woke,” which is another way of accusing someone of holding an opinion that is shallow or insincere.
And that’s why both “woke” and “virtue signaling” have become tiresome right-wing political putdowns – and need to be retired.
Smearing every action or every opinion as being performed simply for the optics means that you don’t believe they are sincere. You don’t believe that someone could – let’s say – be a vegan simply because they love animals. Instead, you think their “real” reason for supporting a belief is to be seen to be righteous.
In other words, accusing someone else of being a virtue signaler says far more about the cynicism of the critic than it does about the subject of their criticism. After all, if you can’t possibly imagine someone holding a sincere belief that differs from yours, perhaps it’s because you have no sincerely held beliefs of your own.
And, if we’re going to get biblical about it, Jesus didn’t command people not to brag about being vegan or doing Crossfit or running marathons. Specifically, Jesus cautions against praying in public. His concern is not about political hypocrisy, but spiritual hypocrisy.
So, if we are weighing which is worse – a celebrity decrying animal cruelty while wearing leather shoes or a right-wing politician holding a prayer breakfast in the morning and accepting a bribe in the afternoon, only one rates a specific mention by Jesus.
We need to accept that sometimes people are outraged by injustice because injustice is outrageous. People speak against animal cruelty, because animals can’t speak for themselves. Sometimes, people will tweet about the wastefulness and greed that is killing the planet because they want to make change happen, but don’t know where to start. Sometimes, people cry out in public because the public need to hear those cries.
People may disagree on social and political issues. But when we imply that those who we disagree with have no principles – if we think everyone on the right is a fascist and everyone on the left is a fool – we cannot respect one another.
And ultimately accusing those you disagree with of virtue signaling means that you do not believe virtue is real – and that is a sad, cynical – and unchristian – way to live.
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