I recently officiated a funeral of a woman who, to put it lightly, was a diehard sports fan. She was one of those scream-at-the-TV, team-logo-everywhere type of loyalists. When a rival team won a championship, she responded with such vitriol that the family struggled to tell the story in a funeral-appropriate way.
Team loyalty is part of the fun of sports. I can’t relate to the level of fandom expressed by this woman, but I know that for those who grew up watching a team, it’s all tangled up in nostalgia and it almost feels like part of your family.
Even if you don’t watch sports, you probably get the drill of team loyalty: Every time there’s a game, you’re there to cheer them on in a defeat of the opponent. When a call is made against your team, you boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When your team makes a mistake or breaks the rules, you either say nothing or blame it on the opponent.
Except for the occasional riot and violent incident, that kind of uncritical loyalty is fine for the sports world, but belongs only in the sports world. Our life in the real world must be primarily governed by principle. Loyalty has its place, but when it is uncritical, or unabashedly partisan, it is sinful and deadly.
It is principle — a commitment to certain values and a strong moral compass — that is too often discarded in favor of loyalty.
In practical reality, principles and loyalty are not mutually exclusive. There is an unavoidable tension that exists between the two. It keeps moral philosophers busy and constitutes many of our personal moral dilemmas.
However, as moral philosophers like John Corvino and Stephen Nathanson argue, loyalty, by itself, is valueless. Loyalty can be moral or immoral, totally dependent upon the object of and reasons for the loyalty. As Elizabeth Picciuto points out, unchecked loyalty is “corrosive to someone’s character” and integrity. Unchecked loyalty causes us to jettison any and all other virtues in its service. It serves the mafia well but not the common good.
Our political system is more and more one that rewards loyalty to one’s party and donors. Those who stick to principle when their party goes astray are often squeezed out quickly, if they even make it in the door at all. Our nation’s first president, George Washington, warned of this danger in his Farewell Address:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … is itself a frightful despotism. … Sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
President Trump has demanded personal loyalty from leaders of independent government agencies. The rifts we see between the president and his party are not a conflict of loyalty versus principle but of competing loyalties. In these early stages of some GOP primaries, the focus has been on loyalty to the president more than principle and platform.
Think also of the ways in which perceived disloyalty to the United States, particularly our flag and our military, are met with strong condemnation but without any reference to the principles in question. What’s more important? Obedient recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the implementation of the liberty and justice for all of which it speaks?
Whenever there’s a whistleblower like Bradley Manning — who you may recall released documents revealing abuse and human rights violations in the military — public discourse often seems to focus on their being a traitor, rather than the violation of principles that they are trying to reveal. Which is the more serious issue? Whistleblowers put their lives and careers at risk for the sake of principle.
What a great myth it is that those who criticize their country must hate it. Quite to the contrary, I criticize my country when it is wrong precisely because I love it, and because I want it to be the world’s shining beacon of freedom and democracy. Unquestioning loyalty is not only the bane of society but the complicit pathway to power by which some of the world’s most brutal leaders have come. Uncritical loyalty serves the interests of power, not principle.
Ross Douthat said, “The thing about trading your principles for power is that once you do it the Devil always comes back offering variations on the same deal.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented in a similar vein: “Everyone who misappropriates the eternal law and concedes responsibility to a Superman will in the end be destroyed by him.”
So, it is worrying that this valueless loyalty has achieved a stranglehold on much of the American psyche, having really ratcheted up in this current era of cable news. But even more concerning to me is that it has also firmly taken hold of evangelical Christianity and propelled it to unsightly levels of hypocrisy. There is an open and bleeding wound as a result of adopting a stance of uncritical loyalty to political alliances who have, in return, promised great influence and to deliver on a few key issues.
When loyalty is paramount, the concept of sin is reduced to not toeing the line. When loyalty trumps principle, ethical and moral frameworks are hollowed out and we lose our ability to speak substantially to sin and injustice. This is what has happened to evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., who have become “court prophets,” loyal to the leader.
It produces marked hypocrisy. In 1998, Franklin Graham said, “If someone will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?” He said that in reference to Bill Clinton. From the standpoint of principle, that is a good and important question. But today, such statements have been revealed as serving only partisan loyalty, since Graham today says, “[Trump’s] thing with Stormy Daniels is nobody’s business.”
How crafty uncritical loyalty can be. It talks the talk of principle, but that’s not what guides it. This is one way to interpret the situation with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s comments about spousal abuse. In a years-old conversation, he appears to counsel women to stay with abusive men for the purpose of the man’s redemption. He has since tried to clarify, but all of us who watched Patterson and his colleagues take over the Southern Baptist Convention and drive women out of leadership positions know what this is about. At its root, this is about ensuring that women remain loyal and subservient to men.
Jesus was starkly criticized for being disloyal to “the children of Abraham” and Jewish law, saying instead that the “weightier matters of the law” were matters of principle: “justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus went as far as to say that the principle of doing to others as you would have them do to you “sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). I have seen within Christianity a slip into a valueless loyalty to an abstract Christ (and the Christian “team”) as opposed to a desire to be a living reflection of the character of God as revealed in Jesus.
I pray that, in the midst of a discouraging spectacle of some Christians selling their soul, God will grant us the courage needed to put our loyalties in service to our values and principles, not the other way around.