The trailer looked good but it was actually gutted.
When my parents—snowbirds—set their sights on purchasing a trailer in Florida, they found one that looked good. A closer inspection revealed termite damage. Americans got a closer look at Congress when the House censured Representative Charles Rangel. How many saw termite damage? It goes well beyond Congress to a culture where shame, conscience, and guilt have been gutted.
In Washington, shame isn’t what it used to be. When the House of Representatives censured Representative Charles Rangel on December 2nd, Rangel felt no shame. His offenses included using congressional letterhead to solicit donations for an academic center named for him, housing campaign offices in rent-controlled apartments and failing to pay taxes on a Dominican villa. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finished reading out the censure statement, Rangel asked for a minute to address his colleagues. “In my heart, I truly feel good,” he said. “I know in my heart that I’m not going to be judged by this Congress.” So much for censure.
“Congress has long relied on shame to enforce its norms,” writes David A. Fahrenthold. “Rule-breaking members were driven out not by force, but by their own consciences and their embarrassed constituents.”1 Before Rangel, Congress has only censured 22 people. Their crimes included assault, bribery, payroll fraud and sexual misconduct. Professor Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said Rangel’s arrogant response laid bare the weakness at the heart of this punishment. “If you are not shamed by a censure,” Zelizer said, “there’s not that much more that censure does.”
It did not always work this way. Censure was based on a Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature. Shame was a feeling supported by a stud in the wall—conscience. Every individual has a conscience. Since individuals build institutions, every institution has a conscience. When individuals and institutions do wrong, they should feel guilt. And from guilt they should feel shame. Conscience was the stud in the wall supporting guilt and shame. Erecting sound institutions required straight studs. If termites gutted the conscience studs, the feeling of guilt and shame was dismissed as fiction. This began to occur in the 19th century.
Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud fundamentally formed the 19th century. Darwin reframed “What is a human being?” Humans were no longer designed in God’s image but descended from animals. No conscience. Nietzsche reframed “What is right and wrong?” Morality became rooted in might rather than right. No guilt. Freud reframed “What is wellbeing?” A sense of wellbeing became rooted in the self rather than in shalom. No shame. Philip Johnson writes that these three helped “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”2 Freud was most influential. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, Philip Rieff summarizes Freud’s legacy as reframing conscience. Conscience wasn’t a solid stud in the wall but a sham. What then can be done?
In October of this year, Congresswoman Susan M. Collins asked what has gone wrong with Congress. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, she wrote: “Not long ago, I happened upon George Washington’s ‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,’ a transcription of various guides to etiquette, written when Washington was but a teenager.” Collins notes that Washington recorded at total of110 points. She writes that it is not until point 110 that young George got to the heart of the matter: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”3
She’s right. But laboring to keep alive conscience is similar to keeping termites out of a home. It takes diligence. We saw the lack of diligence in the termite damage on October 2nd. It’s easy to look at Congress and be taken with the marble walls and gilded halls. But any institution cannot remain standing if there is termite damage. What’s true for Congress is true for our culture. My parents never bought the termite-infested trailer because replacing the studs would prove to be prohibitive. We don’t have that luxury when it comes to our national institutions such as Congress.
1 David A. Fahrenthold, “As Rangel demonstrates, shame no longer required after political wrongdoing,” Washington Post, December 4, 2010, A4.
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 5.
3 Susan M. Collins, “Congress got nasty. Here’s how to fix it.” Washington Post, October 10, 2010; B04.