It would be an interesting exercise to trace the history of the word sanctimony. In its original derivation from the Latin sanctimonia, it seems to have had the straightforward sense of sanctity or sacredness. But centuries ago, it took on its current meaning—of pretended or affected or hypocritical holiness. Already in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Lucio remarks on “the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped one out of the table”—i.e., that thou shalt not steal. So we’ve been well aware of sanctimony since before the Puritans arrived in the New World. And it didn’t take the exposés of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century or Sinclair Lewis in the 20th to convince ordinary Americans to be on their guard against those who indulge in it, whether in the pulpit or the public square.
One might think that sanctimony would have gone into remission in our supposed age of sophisticated irony. Yet it thrives. Perhaps 21st century liberal sanctimony is a particularly hardy and virulent strain of sanctimonia. Or perhaps our immune system is weaker than that of previous generations of Americans, owing to our soft and comfortable prosperity. But for whatever reason, liberal sanctimony is going strong.
And liberal sanctimony has its own distinctive character. From Angelo of Measure for Measure to Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, most purveyors of sanctimony know they’re frauds. Some agonize over succumbing to temptation. Others cheerfully feign piety because it is useful to them. But their awareness of what they’re doing makes them interesting characters. What’s amazing about today’s liberal sanctimony is its apparent lack of self-awareness.
Take, for example, our president. His sanctimony seems unalloyed with self-knowledge and untempered by doubt. And so he leaves even hardened observers of the human condition, like the foreign affairs scholar Walter Russell Mead, agape. Mead, by the way, says he voted for Obama in 2008. Here he is this week, writing on Obama’s berating of his countrymen for their hesitation in admitting thousands of immigrants from Syria and its environs:
“To see the full cynicism of the Obama approach to the refugee issue, one has only to ask President Obama’s least favorite question: Why is there a Syrian refugee crisis in the first place?
“Obama’s own policy decisions—allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones—were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn. For him to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than those evil Jacksonian rednecks out in the benighted sticks is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time. . . .
“To think that conspicuous moral posturing and holy posing over a symbolic refugee quota could turn President Obama from the goat to the hero of the Syrian crisis is absurd. Wringing your hands while Syria turns into a hell on earth, and then taking a token number of refugees, can be called many things, but decent and wise are not among them. You don’t have to be a xenophobe or a racist or even a Republican to reject this President’s leadership on Syria policy. All you need for that is common sense and a moral compass. . . .
“For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House. In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today—a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.”
Now it might be that Obama’s sanctimony is merely a cover for cynicism; it might be he’s self-aware enough to know exactly what he’s doing. But we shouldn’t underestimate the self-delusion of the liberal mind. In Obama’s case, that mind is the product of decades of intellectual cocooning and smug moral preening. It shouldn’t surprise us if the sanctimony he indulges is habitual and oblivious.