Where do sinners find salvation in secular society?
If we become someone "special" — perhaps a U.S. senator, an auteur, a Hollywood power broker — then, we tell ourselves, we can escape our personal demons. In reality, sin must be confronted and overcome; we must right our wrongs and work to reset that which we've put out of joint.
But instead, too frequently we are seduced by the idea that civic contributions, celebrity status or popular plaudits will somehow shrink our sins. We point to some Promethean feat to placate our conscience. The sullied soul, however, is never so easily assuaged.
I am no sinless saint, and I've known just enough of life to appreciate that I can't pawn off trophies — no matter how gilded — to pay debts amassed from life's moral misdemeanors.
No amount of secular sacraments can save mankind from sin. But that doesn't stop us from trying them. In recent weeks, America has witnessed men of uncommon worldly "accomplishment" appear before the court of public opinion after allegations of grave sexual misconduct and shocking instances of sexual assault.
Some have denied the allegations; others have apologized; a few have proffered woefully weak justifications. A couple of the alleged come across as bemused that their wealth or status did not shield them better from this shame.
"So he gets himself elected congressman, and the demons don't go away," explains the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, discussing a dangerous kind of psychology prevalent among some who enter public life. "There is a sense of, 'Gee, I'm kidding everybody! I'm a congressman and the insecurities I had as a youth are still there. Now if I could be a senator, then I'd be established. … So I get to be senator and the demons are still there. If I got to be president then I could prove to everybody. So I run for president, and one of two things happen. I win or I lose. And I lose … (And) all of the demons come out.'"
Demons don't die with dollar bills or title bumps. In fact, in some instances, so-called "successes" exacerbate unbridled impulses.
But even as contemporary culture unwisely moves away from religion, basic human truths (so often infused within religious teachings) remain the same. Sex still demands strictures; sin still demands deep cleaning through proper penitence and God's grace.
There is, of course, a place for seeking to overcome sin through service. Holy writ and the weight of religious tradition teaches that sincere selflessness does much to cleanse and heal. But hiding a life of moral decay inside a whited sepulcher is said to yield — at least in the eschatology of Dante's "Inferno"— an acutely unpleasant hereafter.
"I figure (winning the White House) is probably maybe the only way I'm going to get to heaven," quipped then-candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail last year. "So I better do a good job. OK?"
Though Trump's line was offered with his tongue in his cheek, this idea — that some great feat can cover sins of commission — has come to serve as a secular form of salvation. The philosophy seems to say: Berate a Starbucks barista, impose your unrighteous will on another soul, but, as long as you win an Oscar or fly overseas to help that starving village, well, surely we can absolve you.
We need brave humanitarian feats and praiseworthy cultural contributions, but if such alms are marshaled in an effort to paper over grave misdeeds, such forms of secular salvation will always fall short.