Performative Piety

Published August 28, 2020

Last week, I ran a post on the weirdness of appealing to super-duper superior Eucharistic piety while advocating pure selfishness and calling those who are not as selfish as the pious “cowards”. It is the weirdness that elevates such ritualism as communion on the tongue above the medical necessity of temporary communion in the hand and which even sees such temporary measures as the sinister beginning of a war on such pious observances. It is all about the supreme selfishness and self-pity of the pious over the actual health needs of their neighbor. In short, mere ritual is turned into prophylactic against the love of neighbor and the first greatest commandment falsely weaponized against the second greatest commandment.

A non-believing reader remarked:

You know Mark, this reminds me of that conversation we had a while back about Lent and the Catholic notions about fasting, which makes all this seem even more bizarre.

Its like, sure, I’ll make a sacrifice, but only when its mostly ceremonial, at a time that is convenient for me and is of little consequence. But asking me to make a small sacrifice to save thousands of lives? Nope, that’s a bridge too far.

Its quite ironic, because in a way, Catholics have been training for this their entire lives. All of that fasting during Lent should’ve served as preparation for a situation like the one we’re going through right now.

But I guess that at some point, people just started going through the motions without reflecting on the significance of that aspect of their own tradition.

My reader gets the point better than the Trads at war with masking. For Catholics, piety is supposed to lead to spiritual growth and moral reform. The love of God is supposed to lead to the love of neighbor. But for Qatholics, piety is performative and often a prophylactic against spiritual growth and moral reform. The greatest commandment gets weaponized against the second greatest commandment.

The problem of performative vs. living piety is an ancient one. Isaiah, for instance, rails against ceremonial observances that do not lead to spiritual reform and which pit the love of God against the love of neighbor:

Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of he-goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who requires of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
defend the fatherless,
plead for the widow. (Is 1:10–17)

And Jesus has the same complaints and warnings for his disciples:

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6:1–6).

The point is that any form of piety done to prevent rather than lead to obedience of the first and second commandments is an evil. This is why “thoughts and prayers” filth from public servants who are supposed to act to keep children from having their heads blown off is a stench in the nostrils of God.

Likewise, the “prolife” movement is chockablock with performative piety. Indeed, it matters more to many allegedly “prolife” members of the MAGA cult to say you are against abortion than to actually save human life. That’s why they don’t care that Trump has raised Planned Parenthood funding to record heights and raised abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa by 40%. What matters is that he says he opposes Planned Parenthood and that taketh away the sin of actually doing so.

Performative piety is not something only religious people do. You can do acts of piety for human applause anywhere. Feminists who, twenty years ago, were looking the other way while Bill Clinton preyed on women were doing performative piety for their peers. Atheist gamers who ignore their creepy incel bully peers while complaining about fundamentalist hypocrisy are doing the same. Anybody can use the pieties of their peers as a way of hiding their sins.

One of the paradoxes of performative piety is that genuine virtue is often confused with it. That is why decent people are often accused of “virtue signaling” by nasty people. The accusation is precisely that they are doing good things simply to be seen, when in fact they are doing good because you should do what is good. Often the accuser is the one doing the performative piety for his peer group of selfish jerks–as, for instance, was Rush Limbaugh’s mockery of Joe Biden for his suffering and sacrifice in raising his sons after he was widowed, and then losing his son. Biden’s sacrificial suffering is what Normals call “being a good parent”. But in the Limbaugh cult of selfishness, spitting on liberals is an act of ritual piety. So Limbaugh chose to do that in order to win the approval of his Non-Normal peers. He, not Biden, was doing performative piety.

This sort of piety is a sort of diabolical inversion of virtue signaling called “vice signaling”. It tells the peer group that the Pious One is willing to flout human decency to please his peers. It is this kind of mentality, taken to its limits that leads to insane acts of mob cruelty and orgiastic scapegoating violence.

What matters with piety is not the act but the motivation. And that is typically something only a knowledge of the person can reveal. Two people may do the same thing, while one does so because it is the right thing and the other does it in order to be praised. This is why Jesus can tell us to do our pious works in secret, but also tell us to let our light so shine that people see our good works and praise our Father in heaven. Sometime we are, in fact, required to make a public show of our good deeds, as when clergy and religious marched in Selma, in order to bear witness to the demands of God’s kingdom to a world at war with Him. Other times, it is necessary to act in secret in order to not draw attention to ourselves.

The point of ceremonial acts of piety is not to act as a prophylactic against obedience, but to lead to deeper obedience. Isaiah 58 contrasts performative vs. obedient piety well:

“Cry aloud, spare not, 
lift up your voice like a trumpet; 
declare to my people their transgression, 
to the house of Jacob their sins. 
Yet they seek me daily, 
and delight to know my ways, 
as if they were a nation that did righteousness 
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; 
they ask of me righteous judgments, 
they delight to draw near to God. 
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? 
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ 
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers. 
Behold, you fast only to quarrel 
and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. 
Fasting like yours this day 
will not make your voice to be heard on high. 
Is such the fast that I choose, 
a day for a man to humble himself? 
Is it to bow down his head like a rush, 
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? 
Will you call this a fast, 
and a day acceptable to the LORD? 

¶“Is not this the fast that I choose: 
to loose the bonds of wickedness, 
to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover him, 
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, 
and your healing shall spring up speedily; 
your righteousness shall go before you, 
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; 
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. 

“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, 
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 
if you pour yourself out for the hungry 
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, 
then shall your light rise in the darkness 
and your gloom be as the noonday. 
And the LORD will guide you continually, 
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong; 
and you shall be like a watered garden, 
like a spring of water, 
whose waters do not fail. 
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; 
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; 
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, 
the restorer of streets to dwell in. 

“If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, 
from doing your pleasure on my holy day, 
and call the sabbath a delight 
and the holy day of the LORD honorable; 
if you honor it, not going your own ways, 
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 
then you shall take delight in the Lord, 
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; 
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, 
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is 58:1–14)

25 Responses

  1. Hang on! Wait a second! Whaddya mean Trump has raised funding to PP?? Really? How so? (NO, I am not a Trump supporter. I am not even American. But that is either a real eyebrow raiser or a just a rumour to me. How do you know this? Where are the numbers for this? If it is true, it wouldn’t really surprise me a bit judging by the man’s total lack of integrity, but former friends (now divided from me by their choice because they are HUGE Trump fans) insisted over and over that he was chief witness against abortion. So, Mr. Shea, where did you get that little gem from?

    1. Off the top of my head – lots of Planned Parenthood “funding” comes from fee-for-service income, where as long as PP is an approved Medicaid provider they will get more “funding” if there’s more folks qualifying for Medicaid and more general need for their services.

      Plus there may be state or federal-level grants that have nothing to do with abortion but for which Planned Parenthood qualifies because they meet the qualifications of that grant, like for general gynecological health, or comprehensive sex education. Some chapters may even have qualified for paycheck protection grants (depending on how the organization is structured).

      But like I said, I haven’t researched this specifically at all.

    2. I would assume that, similarly to Canada, public accounts get published and are available if you want to do the research. And as far as I can remember – from my own time as a public servant – those public accounts contain information about grants and subsidies.Similar things are done when the government proposes a budget to be voted on – elected officials need to know what they are voting about. However, since the US are not my country either, I will not do the research about PP. And at the same time, I have many more reasons to trust Mark’s judgement over Trump’s…

    3. Yah, it’s Medicaid reimbursement for services provided by PP. As long as PP is an approved Medicaid provider that funding stream will track the number of people going to PP for health care.
      Periodically a Congresscritter or two will make noise about removing PP from the approved list, but no Republican has ever made this a priority.

  2. Excellent point about virtue signalling. Sometimes it’s an empty, performative gesture for the sake of gaining social justice brownie points, and that’s what people (honest people, anyway) who gripe about it are really getting at. But other times, it’s necessary, because if you don’t signal your virtue, others will claim you in the name of their vice. After all, you can see how common it is for people to claim to represent the “silent majority.”

  3. Performative piety! I LOVE IT!!!

    That’s why i keep coming here, mark.

    For 50 years, I have been listening to Christians of a certain sort telling me how much they love, love, love me, and then do everything in their power, short of telling the truth or actually loving me, to make my life as difficult, dangerous, unpleasant, and expensive as they possibly can.

    I like the alliteration of performative piety, but dimestore piety also works: cheap, filling, but ultimately, not very good for the objects of its disaffections.

  4. Closely related to, and often intertwined with performative piety is the phenomena of performative patriotism, where the emphasis is placed on empty rhetoric, like the mindless recitation of pledges, displaying of flags and symbols, and unqualified and unconditional adulation of one’s country.

    In a similar fashion to performative piety, this performative patriotism is often used as a way to ignore and detract from the duties that true patriotism demands, which include striving to become a more informed and engaged citizens so we can better critique, defend and improve our nation.

    Honestly, at this point I’m less angry at the mindless masses that have allowed themselves to be utterly consumed by the cult of personality the Republican Party has devolved into, than I am at the people in positions of influence and power, who know exactly what they’re doing and the harm they’re causing with their promotion of this performative piety and faux patriotism, and yet do it anyway.

    1. @3vil

      It’s what Tom Robbins called “symbol junkies” in his best book, “another roadside attraction”, which quite coincidentally, had a great deal to do with Christianity.

      One of many, many quotes on the subject:

      “ These symbol junkies are always yelling about how we’ve got to respect the law, but you never hear one of them say anything about respecting fellow beings.“

    2. Yah, performative patriotism is not new. I remember in 1988 when George Bush Sr. made a big deal out of the fact that Michael Dukakis occasionally made public appearances without a flag pin on his lapel. A meaningless issue if there ever was one, but once it was raised the entire R team started yelling, and not only did Dukakis knuckle under to the pressure, but every presidential candidate ever since has worn flag pins on their suits. Even Biden wears one on his (rare) public appearances.

  5. Mark Shea, you’re a buffoon who does performative piety. You ramble on in this post about how the alt right is doing acts of performative piety, and you call them out for hypocrisy, but you, my man, are just as guilty of this hypocrisy. You unabashedly deride and insult with name calling others who don’t conform to your views and yes, even the Alt righters. Don’t you think that if you want to be a true voice of change and a source of moral inspiration, you should take the log out of your own eye first and wash out your filthy mouth, you who claim to be Christian. I’m not condoning any political side or affiliation, but I am disgusted by your hypocrisy on public forums like Twitter. You write up vile screeds with hefty doses of name calling and then come here on your blog and hide behind your screen “because you’re so pious and holy”. Give me a break.

  6. || This sort of piety is a sort of diabolical inversion of virtue signaling called “vice signaling”. It tells the peer group that the Pious One is willing to flout human decency to please his peers. It is this kind of mentality, taken to its limits that leads to insane acts of mob cruelty and orgiastic scapegoating violence.

    Is it so? I am inclined to believe that this is just a case of lying, both to self and others. The real desire to flout decency is abhorrent to both self (leaving psychopaths, everyone has to sleep with themselves) and peers. What one needs, is to convince oneself that one is doing is GOOD in joining one’s peers. Pleasing peers is a desire, but joining them is a choice. The choice has to make the self feel GOOD, without remorse or regret. There is this collective lying, delusion, so that ‘decent’ people can assent to and commit abhorrent acts without remorse or regret.. I am doing GOOD, we are doing GOOD.

    Moral fig-leafs are a crutch to humans. It is the sweetener that makes sin palatable. Those who mint these free passes to commit evil, and distribute it to the masses, are the evil masterminds.

    In America, currently, abortion is a fig-leaf, manufactured and distributed for use as such.

    1. We are watching right now as a punk butcher who went to Kenosha to hunt humans is being lionized by sociopaths *because* he butchered innocents they hate and want to see dead. Humans can do awful things in the grip of a vice-signaling culture. SS used to laugh as they tossed babies off trains and shot them in mid-air. There is no limit to the horrors humans can do when the frenzy is on them.

      1. To top it off, a “Christian” crowdfunding site is helping raise money for his legal defense:
        https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2020/08/30/christian-website-givesendgo-raises-200000-for-alleged-kenosha-shooter/

        Seriously, who needs invisible demons whispering in your subconscious to tempt you into evil, when you have an entire community, including your immediate family, the people you look up to, your religious and political leaders, the mainstream and online media you consume and interact with, and just about everybody who’s approval matters to you, pushing you in that direction?

        It takes a village, after all. Sometimes, we truly are our own worst enemy.

    2. @burgomaster

      Funny you should mention fig leaves. I was just reading through my roman travelogue of a few years ago, and came across something I had written about fig leaves.

      “ The fig leaves inadvertently reveal one of the three obsessions of the Roman Church– sex. The other two are power and money, but I’ll get to those. (You knew there was a rant coming on, didn’t you)? One of the oddities of the fig leaf is that it always calls attention to what it ostensibly is intended to hide, or at least, make socially invisible. Worse, because everyone knows exactly what it is supposed to conceal, it conceals absolutely nothing. However, everyone agrees to pretend that they haven’t the foggiest about any of it. Thus, it is a monument to hypocrisy, not a monument to modesty. In any case, if hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the fig leaf of modesty is likewise the homage that virtue pays to hypocrisy. It is very much like the wars waged in the name of the Prince of Peace, fought by the armies that the Church commanded, controlled, and paid for: you need only pretend that cannons are canons, and carry on. ”

  7. I don’t know, but when I read some on the right, I can see a certain self-righteousness. But when I read this blog, I see the same type of self-righteousness being displayed. And if anyone dares to raise their head and disagree, they are attacked with all sorts of name calling. I don’t have the answers to all the questions that are being raised. But I do know that the vitriol on both conservative and progressive sides or however to describe it, is not very appealing. I can’t judge the heart of one not wearing a mask, nor the heart of one wearing a mask. I can’t judge the heart of one receiving communion in either manner even in a pandemic. I can’t say where Biden and Trump’s hearts are either. No one can. And one is permitted to cast vote for whomever one thinks best would fulfill the duties of president. Fr. Pavone and Mark Shea can’t tell anyone who to vote for or who not to vote for. And the hearts of those voters can’t be judged by either aforementioned men. Certain claims on both sides are not verifiable. No one knows how many people who died from COVID are Trumps responsibility. It would be a guess. No one knows how many people died due to the complete shutdown of states. No one knows. No one knows for sure their are more abortions committed due to the Mexico City Policy being in place. The money for PP is given by congress, not the president. As I recall and attempt was made early on in the administration to stop all funding to PP, but was overruled by courts. I may be wrong on this fact.

    1. I’m not choosing sides or anything, but Trump is clearly innocent and something close to a heroic martyr. You can’t judge anyone’s hearts, you self-righteous bully. If you laugh at me, you are mean. In conclusion, I can’t say the criminal neglect of 180, 000 dead Americans is bad, but I can say that criticism of Trump is vitriol.

    2. Compared all of the bull crap you spouted previously, this takes the grand prize For moral vacuity and intellectual laziness…

      “I can’t judge the heart of one not wearing a mask, nor the heart of one wearing a mask.” YOU may or may not be able to judge their hearts. But you are not even bothering to judge their intellects, which would give you a fairly good idea of what’s in their hearts. The world has shut down. No one goes anywhere. There is a plague. 195,000 American citizens- and those are just ones we’re counting— are dead. Hundreds of thousands more in the world at large are dead. Even your orange savior has stopped calling this a democrat hoax. Even the godless god botherers of the republicant party wear masks Unless they are playing to an audience.

      So when someone says “i’m not going to wear a mask or “this disease is a hoax” or “Scoence and Doctors are conspiring to takeovervthe world” or “your dead grandma is an acceptable price for you to pay so that i can have money and own the libs” or “I’m voting for republicants who want to takeaway health care in a pandemic so that i can own the libs” or “george soros is Paying Bill Gates to put microchips in masks”…

      What they are really saying is they don’t give a small dam about reality, or their fellow citizens. Right to life christians like Gov. Abbott of Texass or gov. Deathsantis of Floriduh both said that they were going to open their Economies because MONEY, not keep it closed with shelter-in-place in place. They were told by those mean scientists what would happen. Science SCHMIENCE. It did happen— record deaths, overwhelmed healthcare systems.

      They were able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what the right-to-life movement is really about, as Mark has said repeatedly.

      So yes, you are perfectly capable of judging what is in their hearts.

      You just don’t want to.

  8. No, I am not lazy.. well maybe sometimes. Only God sees into the heart. God knows all the circumstances of someone. Hence we have Church teaching on invincible ignorance when it comes to Faith. Who would have the greater sin, Trump or Biden? Biden should know better because he is Catholic. But that being said, it would also go back to his formation. If he was given mistaken information say on the Life issue, or on Marriage, then that would play into it. I have no idea what his understanding of things are. Same goes with Trump. How was he raised, taught, etc… We don’t know what mitigating circumstances there are, so we can not judge his soul. We can say this or that issue, he is wrong on, but we cannot judge him. Maybe I am wrong on this. But this is my understanding on such things. I don’t claim to be a an expert or theologian. And I do know that every name I call someone, I must someday answer for. And boy, do I struggle with this! I can let ’em fly with the best of them!!! PS I threw ya a softball with some of this if you so chose… I’d much rather discuss this over a beer, than in this format.

    1. @tad

      Oh, yes indeed! You are lazy, and you proved it yet again. “Only God sees into the heart.” Bull bleep.

      People show you what’s in their hearts all of the time. You have the choice of seeing it, or not seeing it. You choose not to.

      A friend of mine was a screaming queen in so many ways. Anybody that knew him at all knew he was gay as gay could be. I saw videos of him when he was a child, and it was obvious to anyone even then. His parents were always telling him to “man up“— be a real-man, be a real boy. But when he finally came out to them, they expressed complete surprise.

      He always used to laugh about it. “They knew what they wanted to know.”

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