Jesus famously says, “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.” (Mt 6:1).
In his time and culture, such performative piety was primarily religious in nature, since to be perceived as pleasing to God or the gods was seen by everybody as the highest good. The goal of such showiness was ostensibly to pursue this highest good but was really, as Jesus points out, to be seen as pursuing the highest good, which is a radically different thing.
These days, many people no longer think of pleasing God as the highest good and so imagine themselves immune to displays of performative piety. But this is not so. Performative piety will be with us till the moon falls, whether you are a believer or not, because when you get rid of God as your highest you don’t wind up with nothing as your highest good, but with anything as your highest good. Human being are creatures who *must* worship. We can’t stop ourselves. We can only choose to worship what is God or not God as our highest good. We can’t not worship just as we can’t not desire happiness–and for profoundly related reasons since God is, in the end our happiness.
So if we do not worship God, we simply designate something else as the highest good. And whatever good we choose to serve, we then have a further choice to serve sincerely or insincerely. And that is where performative piety comes in, whether we believe in God or not.
So, for instance, in recent years a very healthy movement to really pay attention to the dignity of the human person in all our varieties and forms has arisen, called the Woke Movement. At its purest and most sincere, it genuinely seeks to live out the implications of the Second Greatest Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself, regardless of such things as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Many people really and genuinely desire to live with integrity in regard to it.
But not all. It is also just as possible to engage in performative piety when it comes to being Woke as it does when to being religious. Case in point: the corporation that makes M&Ms:
There are two sorts of people who roll their eyes at this:
1. MAGA Right Wingers who hate and detest any public expression of empathy for any person not themselves and who are eager to gin up stupid culture war Panics du Jour, like this guy with his weird fantasies:
Of all the dumb reasons to take exception to that ad, Carlson’s is the dumbest.
But there are also good reasons to object to this ad and they are easily noted by the second sort of person: People who don’t like a snow job from a company that practices evil.
What I mean is this: If the Mars Corporation was, in their new ad campaign, actually, seriously, expressing empathy for various types of people who often get run down or mocked or exploited, there is nothing for a Christian to object to in that. It would be nice to see not just corporations but all human beings say, “Lift up the vulnerable and respect them.” And it says everything about MAGA cultists that it is precisely that message that perpetually evokes their kneejerk mockery and contempt, because they are self-pitying bullies who savor cruelty to the weak out a depraved notion that it makes them strong:
But that is not what this ad is actually about. Rather, it is about being perceived to care about the vulnerable while in fact, being a cruel corporate exploiter of African child slaves on a charm offensive.
Suit was brought last year by six men claiming to be former slaves and dismissed by the US Supreme Court in much the way OJ Simpson was “proven legally innocent”:
The US Supreme Court has ruled food giants Nestlé USA and Cargill can’t be sued for child slavery on African farms from where they buy their cocoa.
Six African men alleged that they were trafficked from Mali and forced to work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.
The group say both companies perpetuated that slave trade to keep cocoa prices low.
The court ruled 8-1 that the group had no standing because the abuse happened outside the US.
You don’t have to be a Christian or a Pharisee or even religious to do performative piety. All you have to do is pretend to care about doing a popular good thing in order to hide the fact that you do evil.
Meanwhile, a colossal number of antislavery organizations are founded and run by Christians acting in obedience to the gospel command to set the oppressed free. If you oppose slavery, support one of them–and boycott M&Ms and all other manufacturers of slave chocolate. Buy from these guys instead.
That SCOTUS ruling is interesting. The core of the reasoning, as far as I can tell, not being a lawyer and all, is that the trafficking was not happening because of decisions being made at corporate headquarters in the US, but rather was a purely domestic issue in Ivory Coast. Ergo, US courts have no jurisdiction.
The reasoning may or may not be right, but eight of the Justices agreed with it, including all three liberals. The lone dissenter was Alito, and his basis for dissent was this: “I would hold that if a particular claim may be brought under the ATS against a natural person who is a United States citizen, a similar claim may be brought against a domestic corporation. . . . Corporate status does not justify special immunity.” Do you get that? He still really believes what he wrote in Hobby Lobby, that corporations should be treated in all matters of law as people.
See more here:
That may well be the case, but I don’t get that impression from his dissent itself. In any case, whatever he or anyone else might think of corporate personhood, “Corporate status does not justify special immunity” is the right take.
I think it’s also fair to roll your eyes at the idea that changing an M&M mascot’s shoes is “inclusive.” Even if this weren’t a distraction tactic, and even if the actual design change is a good one, patting themselves on the back so hard for this change is intensely performative. It’s like people unironically spelling “folks” with an x to be gender-inclusive.
But the fact that it is a smokescreen for their continued use of slavery takes it from being merely gauche and vain (though it is still both) into the realm of being deeply, maliciously evil.
“Performative piety” isn’t condemned (as far as I am aware) as wrong or evil or a bad thing in itself, but as simply not, in fact, being peity at all. If someone gives alms because they want to be seen as the good guy and generous then the reward they get is exactly what they want – they get to be seen as the good guy and generous, because that is what they are doing. They are still doing better than if they did not give alms at all, and a desire to be seen as a good person is often a first step towards a desire to actually be one. A corporation behaving responsibly because it is good PR is still a corporation behaving responsibly, and, given that corporations have no soul and do not need to be saved, “performative piety” is as good as it gets for a corporation.
Mars’ problem with how they grow their cocoa is not that their “piety” is performative, but that it is lacking – they should be shamed into doing the right thing if they cannot be compelled, and if they then do the right thing out of shame and concern for their image, when and if they have done the right and should be recognised for it , “performative” or otherwise.
As someone who’s actually been on both sides of the equation, I’m going to disagree with your take on this notion that everybody must worship in some way. Yes, we all have things that we value, and we all have things that we prioritize, and the act of worshiping is something that involves both of those elements.
However, just because they are related, it doesn’t mean that the relationship is exclusive; you can value and prioritize things and people without worshiping them. People can go through life without the need to place one thing above all others at all times; they just take things as they come, within the currently applicable context.
This idea that everybody has to worship something, really comes from an apologetics talking point, colloquially known as “the Law of Conservation of Worship”. I’m fairly certain that a lot of this is rooted in a projection of their own hierarchical, rule-centered mindset onto everybody else. That doesn’t make it true though.
But yes, that minor quibble aside, your overall point is well taken. On that note, this is a short compilation I watched recently that plays along those lines:
“Evangelicals Get Schooled By The Bible”
Yah, I caught that too, but decided not to object because it’s boilerplate language among Christian apologists, both protestant and Catholic. They all say it, most likely because they all really believe it. My experience is that when I say “I don’t worship anything” they invariably reply with “Do too! Money/significant other/hobby/whatever” and the conversation goes in circles. Christian apologists, even decent and level-headed ones like Mark, carry certain preconceptions about nonbelievers that, while laughably inaccurate, are still hard to dislodge.