May 16, 2007

Forgive Falwell? Or Judge Jerry?

Brad DeLong asks himself, What Would Jesus Do? And he finds that Jerry Falwell had an abusive father:
Falwell's childhood must have been a complete hell--and it is no surprise that Falwell made God in his own father's image. Given the hand that he was dealt, I cannot judge Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, we should never forget that we can't know all the circumstances that shaped someone's life, and we should be reluctant to throw that first (or nth) stone. But such circumspection does not, and should not, necessarily result in withholding judgment. Hitler and Stalin had abusive fathers, too; should we apply the same reasoning to them, and judge them not? Few people would go to such extremes, and not too many more would admire those few for going all the way with Jesus.

So where do you draw the line? Is there a "morally optimal" limit of forgiveness and understanding? Brad's may be somewhere between Falwell and Hitler/Stalin, but someone else's heart (mine, perhaps) may not have room for the Falwells of the world. Most of us would agree that forgiveness should not be restricted to near perfection and that overinclusive forgiveness also feels wrong, but placing the limit more precisely seems highly subjective. And if there is no objectively best level of withholding judgment, it is presumptuous to assert that anyone's personal level is ethically superior to anyone else's, and it is unjustified to claim the moral high ground based on one's greater capacity or willingness to forgive.

Besides, Brad's next sentence undermines his position:
The Republican politicians who built Falwell up--who sought his endorsement and magnified his influence--them will I judge.

Oh, I'd be happy to join, but I didn't tie my arms and tongue about judging Jerry. The distinction makes no sense. Just because you didn't dig up anything about the politicians' fathers, doesn't mean they didn't beat them. Or that their mothers didn't take little yellow pills, or that kids didn't laugh at them and girls (or boys) reject them as yucky and creepy...

I wonder if this is another instance of our society's double standard that says someone's politics is fair game for criticism ans attacks, but someone's religion is not. If so, we need to have a little bullfight.

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