Michael Gerson

Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity, and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.

What we really need is to combine high moral standards with humility. When "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was first published, the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to a friend: "You are certainly wrong about Hyde being overdrawn; my Hyde is worse." In every life -- apart from saints and psychopaths -- there is a chasm between our intentions and our conduct. All human journeys are part pilgrimage, part farce. Whenever we mock moral shoddiness, laziness and frailty, we mock into a mirror.

This recognition should lead toward the most underrated of the moral virtues: mercy. Yes, people are baser than their highest ideals. They are also nobler than their worst moments. This does not make the distinction between base and noble impossible. But it makes a little grace appropriate.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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