Finally: it’s worth pointing out that Christians have a particular problem with charges of hypocrisy, for two reasons.
Here’s the first one:
Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Jesus’s denunciation of hypocrisy is hard to square with the wisdom of “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Close to the core of Jesus’s ethical message is the claim that the Pharisaical approach – articulating laws for every aspect of life such that, if you stay within their bounds, you are righteous – far from being the path to righteousness is a path to sin. The law is still the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, to the best of our ability. But we should not follow people who declare themselves masters of the law, and we should not be impressed by people who make a show of their righteousness – we should not be hypocrites ourselves and we should not follow hypocrites.
So, when Christians act like Jesus’s Pharisees, they have a harder time relying on defenses that are explicitly rejected by Jesus.
But the deeper reason for the difficulty is that Christianity’s alternative answer to the problem of sin is, well, hard to swallow. Grace, justification – these are very weird, mysterious ideas that I suspect most Christians don’t really understand. They can sound, to someone who hasn’t swallowed them, an awful lot like a get-out-of-jail-free card, like a claim that once you say you’ve been saved, then you have no further obligation related to your past sins, and even future sins will be readily forgiven. It can sound an awful lot like, well, hypocrisy.
It isn’t – or needn’t be. Whether it’s true or not, and whether it “works” or not (which – for a pragmatist like me – amount to the same thing), Christianity is a powerful and sophisticated system. But as I understand it, the way you’re supposed to comport yourself within a Christian framework is rather like the way a member of AA is supposed to comport herself: as someone permanently addicted to sin, powerless to fight that addiction, seeking always to confess and make amends for past sins, and aware that only by the grace of a higher power has she made it through this day, and that tomorrow is yet another day in need of that same grace.
The standard of sinlessness cannot be met – that’s part of the Christian system’s point. And the standard of saintly humility can’t be met either. But there’s limited evidence that the kinds of people who are typically charged with hypocrisy were even trying to live up to it. [emphasis added]
That may be the biggest reason why the charges so often stick.