COMMENTARY: Righteousness Is Revealed in Conduct, Not Rhetoric

It’s hard to look at the world and some of the people who seem to get ahead without occasionally asking ourselves why we should be ethical. However normal it is to think like this, the question should be off limits for people who profess strong religious beliefs. After all, what religion does not mandate morality?

To authentically religious people, the motivation toward virtue is grounded in the acceptance of a nonnegotiable duty to be a good person in the eyes of God, not in anticipation of personal benefits. Dishonest, irresponsible, or unfair conduct is simply wrong.

Although there are skeptics who are suspicious of the rhetoric of religious advocates and proselytizers, there is a positive correlation between religious conviction and virtue. I think the vast majority of deeply religious people draw guidance and strength from their beliefs and live better if not perfect lives.

Still, religious claims and even sincere convictions are no guarantee of genuine righteousness.

Besides disturbed individuals such as those who believe God commands them to perform horrible acts, discredited televangelist preachers, and priests who molest parishioners, we must face the fact that Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom and John Rigas of Adelphia, the masterminds of some of the world’s greatest swindles, were highly vocal and visible about their Christian beliefs.

Whether such wrongdoers are mentally ill, hypocrites, frauds, or sincere believers with personal weaknesses, their stories remind us that we can’t take for granted the link between religious claims and worthy conduct. It’s not that religion fails people; it’s that people fail their religion.

In the end, regardless of its source, righteousness is revealed in ethical and upright conduct, not rhetoric.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 7

  1. Michael,
    I realize that space is limited but I am a bit disappointed that you chose to single out the mentally ill and Christians as your examples. Every religious group and the alleged normal have been misrepresented by abusers and theives. Thanks for raising these issues. I count on you to keep the scales in balance.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the reminder but my central point was that claims of righteousness are often negated by conduct but it is not that religion fails people, its that people fail their religion.

  2. Ken,
    When someone who makes an issue of his or her faith acts in an inappropriate manner, they draw negative attention to that faith tradition. Unfortunately the two individuals named “were highly vocal and visible about their Christian beliefs”, probably expecting the Christian community to rally around to support them against claims of fraud, etc.
    Here in the Los Angeles region a couple ‘devout’ Israelis used their purported devotion to Torah and to being Shomerei-haShabbat (Sabbath Keepers) to strengthen their appearance of honesty, helping them defraud homeowners of thousands of dollars.
    During the 1970s and 1980s a number of ‘gurus’ used their position to defraud and abuse their followers. There are a number of such claims against the guru Sathya Sai Baba, who died in April 2011.

  3. Pingback: Do what you want? « Balancing Acts

    1. Post

      We should not ignore, accept or otherwise condone bad behavior and, to the extent we can, we should hold them accountable.

  4. Michael
    I am not sure why you have to bring religion in as the central theme in this debate, except in so far as it makes those who transgress appear even more hypocritical. Your statement should have simply read

  5. The discussion and the teachings of religion in our media, society, work place, and even in leadership books and articles takes a back seat. We see some evidence of that in some of the replies here. We even refer to religion as faith in order not to use the word.

    These days being a religious person comes with negative connotation and stigma; however, having religion should be an avenue for being righteous, having faith, integrity, character, and the leadership qualities that we look for in everyone.

    There is always going to be people who would do the wrong things in the name of religion but for every one there are hundreds who are do gooders.

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