I don’t know when it develops, but I’ve noticed that every person I know, young or old, has a very finely-tuned fairness meter. And nothing sets it off faster than a double standard. That explains the daily alarm bells we hear in the news on both sides of the political divide.
For example, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, Democrats were outraged. Imagine the fury when President Donald Trump’s more conservative nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was given a fast track to confirmation by the same Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Democrats called it a double standard.
On the other hand, when the Colorado cake baker, Jack Phillips, was punished by the state of Colorado for refusing to make a designer wedding cake for a gay wedding, conservatives felt that he was being treated unfairly. (The Supreme Court later agreed in a 7-2 decision). Imagine the outcry, then, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant because she works for the Trump administration, and the restaurant owner did not agree with the administration’s views. While liberals saw a clear distinction between the two cases, angry conservatives cried, “Double standard!”
Leaving aside the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, let’s step behind the curtain and take a look at what’s going on in these arguments. In his book, Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg observed, “Behind every double standard lurks an unstated single standard, and in virtually every identity politics campaign that standard is power.” I think he’s right. Through all of human history, we see a natural tendency for people to form groups that favor their own members at the expense of outsiders. In the past, this often happened through violence and oppression. Today, it results in political double standards.
Consider the two previous examples. Why was Mitch McConnell able to stop the confirmation process for Merrick Garland and move the process forward for Brett Kavanaugh? Because he had the votes. He has the power to enforce the Republican party’s will on this issue. Conversely, what were liberals doing when they argued that Jack Phillips had to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding and also supported the restaurant owner who refused to serve a member of the Trump administration? They were using the power available to them to accomplish their goals.
These debates generate a lot of heat in our social discourse, but at a deeper level, they threaten our sense of justice. The Greek philosopher Thrasymachus famously said, “I proclaim that justice is nothing less than the interest of the stronger.” When we see double standards, we realize this is true. It violates our sense of fairness. In fact, it goes against the principles upon which the United States was founded. While our nation’s founders certainly recognized that human motives often stem from a desire to control others, they formed a system of government that sought to balance these competing interests.
In one sense, perhaps, these debates prove the system is working. But I suspect most of us feel that the system is being strained beyond its limit. The rise of identity politics has intensified the power struggle. When our commitment to America as a nation is eclipsed by our tribal allegiances, group interests will triumph over justice.
The only surprising thing about this whole situation is that we are surprised by it. Is this just the way things are? Yes, in this desire for power over others I see the reality of fallen humanity. And, no, in this glimpse into fallenness I realize the necessity of the Cross. At the risk of being called a cynic, I contend that there is no man-made way out of this decline into incivility. It’s natural. The belief that we can overcome our nature by our own effort is as common in our humanistic culture as it is mistaken. The history of the 20th century and the daily news should serve as proof. Man’s inhumanity to man, whether through violence, oppression, or the virtual mob that is social media, is in no danger of extinction.
Jesus Christ overturned more than tables in the temple courts. He overturned the power structures of the world. Do you remember, “The meek shall inherit the earth?” Those who aren’t seeking earthly power are the only ones who can see the problem clearly. And, I believe, the only ones who can solve it.
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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