This week I listened again to the first episode  of Revisionist History, the podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t listened to the first two seasons, I highly recommend that you catch up with those and the first three episodes that have come out for the third season.

The reason I went back to that initial episode was that Gladwell introduced me to a concept that he saw had relevance to our current political and cultural environment, but that I think has particular application to Christians. The idea is called “moral licensing.” It was developed by a number of young scientists in the field of social psychology. Here’s the official definition: “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” As Gladwell points out, “When we do something good, in other words, sometimes we then, on occasion, give ourselves permission to do something bad.”

I think this concept may help to explain something that has always been true but that seems particularly dramatic today: People who self-identify as Christians have no trouble justifying policies or behaviors that are clearly, undisputedly contrary to the teaching of the One to whom they have sworn ultimate allegiance.

Now I get it (I think). The reasoning is, “I’m a Christian now. I have done the ultimate good thing by asking Christ to save me from my sins. Since I have done that one, really good thing, now I can do some things that aren’t really all that good. After all, I can’t be expected to be good all the time.”

Tack on to that line of thinking the belief that our sins are covered by the grace of God and you have the formula for religious hypocrisy, the affirming of a belief that is not borne out by action. It helps me understand (a little) how Christians can ignore the poor, support policies that hurt the foreigner, endorse torture, display racist attitudes, denigrate all religions but their own, seek government endorsement for their beliefs, and generally act in non-Christian, unneighborly ways. It gives perspective as to how a Christian can be both pro-life and pro-death penalty; how a man can be “liberal” in his attitude toward women in general but a misogynist in his own home; how someone can faithfully attend church and be unethical in business. “Hey, I’m a Christian. Isn’t that enough?”

In a word: no. Being a Christian gives you moral license to do only one thing, follow Christ. Any attitude or behavior that is contrary to that goal is unacceptable. We may fall short of our aspiration, but we can’t excuse not having it.

When Gladwell asked Daniel Effron, one of the experts in this concept of moral license, why good deeds don’t simply lead to more good deeds, he responded, “So your question is about when does evidence that I’m virtuous lead to more virtuous behavior versus when does evidence of virtue lead to less virtuous behavior? When does doing good lead to doing bad and when does doing good lead to doing more good? This is the million dollar question in this literature, and it’s been a puzzle. All we know is that human beings go both ways. After a good deed, they sometimes follow a virtuous trajectory, and sometimes they don’t.”

I’m sure you know the trajectory, as a Christian, you’re supposed to follow.