The Sinner Next Door and The Banality of Evil

The New York Times unwittingly set off a firestorm recently with the publication of a piece by Richard Fausset on an allegedly very normal Ohio man named Tony Hovater who lives in a regular suburban neighborhood, shops at Trader Joe’s, eats at Applebee’s — oh, and also happens to be a white supremacist. This profile, titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” elicited such a strong response from critics concerned about Fausset’s apparent attempt at “normalizing” this obvious evil, the Times was moved to issue an apology (of sorts):

Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.

We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.

We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear . . .

We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.

They’re sorry if you were offended. A little half-hearted, if you ask me. But I think embedded in both the original article and the angry push-back are two things everyone essentially agrees on: 1) There are such evils (like Nazism, for instance) that are truly shocking, above and beyond all manner of human decency, grotesque in their ideation and expression. Some sins are worse than others, we might say. And, 2) Equally shocking is just how widespread this kind of outrageous sin actually turns out to be.

Thus, the Nazi next door.

It is that kind of “normality” I think the Times was trying to convey. To have been more clear on that point would probably have called for an opinion piece, not a straightforward journalistic profile. But I think they assumed we’d all know just how evil Nazis are and were a bit taken aback by the idea they were trying to communicate with the piece that the ideology of white supremacy is no big deal. I think they were trying to say it is a bigger deal than we think because it’s everywhere.

Of course, many of our non-white friends have been trying to tell us this for years.

Whether the Times succeeded in this approach is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. But I for one don’t think they were trying to say that racism is normal in that way. But, again, is there much of a revelation in this kind of profile any more? Hasn’t the last election cycle shown too many of us what sort of ideological compromises, including as it pertains to racism and misogyny, our own friends and family members might be willing to make to maintain their own sense of cultural normalcy? What’s a little racism when you’re eating two-for-one apps down at the Applebee’s? Or, you know, electing a president?

It’s easy, more manageable to put white supremacy in the box marked “Fascist European Dictator” or even “Psychopathic Rural Southern Loonies.” It’s shocking when we find it, apparently misplaced, in the boxes marked “Todd from Accounting” or, perhaps, “Grandpa.”

We see a similar phenomenon in the myriad responses to the now daily cascade of sexual harassment and assault revelations about celebrities big and small. Big, fat gross guys like Harvey Weinstein make for easy perpetrators. But Matt Lauer? He seems so nice. He’s handsome. He helps start my morning right.

Sarah Silverman looks truly pained while publicly processing the sins of friend and fellow comedian Louis CK. “Can you love someone who did bad things?” she asks. This week on the revelations of Lauer’s years of harassment (and alleged assault), his “Today Show” co-host Savannah Guthrie said, “I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner. And he is beloved by many, many people here.” Well, even that Ohio Nazi is beloved by somebody.

The Hollywood establishment is seeing their chickens come home to roost. And good for them. Maybe the Lord will use it to grant widespread repentance, as they process the aftermath of getting knocked down off their idealistic high-horses.

And hopefully he will do that to us. Judgment does begin, after all, at the house of God.

What if sexual and racial sin has become so normal — even among evangelicals — we don’t even think of it as abnormal any more? This morning at The Federalist, we find an article titled “Why Alabamians Should Vote for Roy Moore”, which opens thusly:

…[E]ven if Roy Moore did what he is accused of doing, Alabamans are within their rights to vote for him, and they shouldn’t let Democrats and Never Trumpers shame them into not voting.

To remind you, dear reader, Moore has been accused, basically, of pedophilia, as an adult male who regularly sought out underage females, girls as young as 14. You may not find those accusations credible — full disclosure: I do — but this author is saying the credibility is beside the point. And here we fold our hands under our chin and say, “Do go on.”

In his early thirties, Moore had a penchant for dating teenagers. Apparently, this was not an uncommon occurrence during this time. In fact, this practice has a long history and is not without some merit if one wants to raise a large family.

You might even call it downright “normal.” Indeed, the author goes on to quote Romans 3:23. We’re all sinners here. What’s a little pedophilia? There are no big or little sins. And if you claim there are, you’re virtue signaling, the author claims. Which doesn’t stop him from going on to compare Moore with his opponent Doug Jones, claiming that Moore is the “lesser of two evils,” thereby undercutting the entire thesis of his article. If we’re all sinners, and no sin is bigger than another, maybe it’s okay if I don’t vote for the guy who likes underage girls?

Now, at this point, you recoil. That would be normal. The author of this piece is clearly some slack-jawed yokel on the fringes of the faith, if he’s even a Christian! Or, he could be a prof at a Baptist college.

To be fair, Tully Borland says he has a 14 year old daughter, and if that he caught Moore messing with her, he’d hurt him. And then vote for him. Because there’s something more important than virtue.

That this kind of thing gets said, shared, promoted, cheered in all of our circles every day tells us something important about the nature of sin. (Also about the state of the church, but let’s just focus on the theological for a second.) It brings me all the way back around to that “normal” Nazi in Ohio. We are seeing — again and again and again — that the audacity of sin isn’t simply out there. It’s in here.

As we wrestle with the realities that an incredible number of seemingly “normal” guys-next-door like to expose themselves to vulnerable women, to post racially incendiary things anonymously online, to put political power over biblical purity to the point that even pedophilia is not a liability any more for the Values Voters, we realize that we can no longer pretend that all this mess is abnormal, or even that it’s just next door. The calls are coming from inside the house.

And this is how Romans 3:23 actually applies — not that all sin is the same, so what’s a few sins when power is on the line, but that the aberration of rebellion affects us all, so we must be vigilant to call it to account. And not just for “those people.” But for ourselves. Sin is deceitful. Disobedience and falling short of God’s glory doesn’t just make us disordered spiritually — when we coddle sin, it makes us stupid.

Sure, you and I may not support Nazis or yawn at sexual assault. But what sins do we think of as normal? What moral equivalency games have we played? And how would we know?

In 1963, Hannah Arendt published her still-controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the term “the banality of evil.” Arendt’s major claim was not something like “there’s a little bit of Nazism in all of us” (although I’d suggest, biblically speaking, that there kinda is), but that people (like Adolf Eichmann) who normalize otherwise obvious evils in their lives don’t typically do so out of some bizarre psychosis or well-devised ideology but rather sentimental cliches and personal advantages. To summarize, elsewhere Arendt referred to Eichmann as “outrageously stupid.”

Equally so is the idea that we will arrive on the last day and find it perfectly understandable to look our Judge in the eye and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not choose the lesser of two evils in your name?” For now, that seems perfectly normal. But in the end it will be shown to be perfectly stupid.

May the Lord save us not just from evil, but from the calling of evil good.



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