Whatever Happened to Sin and Shame?

by Kelly Boggs

In 1973, Karl Menninger penned a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? Within its pages the eminent psychiatrist lamented the fact that American society seemed to be in the process of rejecting the concept of a divine standard of right and wrong.

The word "sin," Menninger maintained, was disappearing from the American vocabulary. The definition of sin the good doctor had in mind was not sociological, which would only entail the violation of a society's norms or code of laws. No, Menninger's denotation of sin was religious and included the idea of willful rebellion against the standards of God.

Menninger made the case that simply removing the word "sin" from our collective vocabularies would not make its reality disappear. Sin was a living reality in Menninger's mind. Even if the concept was ignored, he believed that individuals as well as society would still suffer the negative consequences of ignoring a divine standard.

He was correct in his analysis. In the three decades since his views on sin were first published, the word in its religious sense has slowly disappeared from use in American society. As a result, the idea of transgressing a divine standard has become nothing more than a concept rooted in nostalgia.

Rejecting the concept of sin has not kept individuals and society from being negatively impacted. One such consequence has been the death of shame in American culture. Once upon a time, salacious behavior was cause for embarrassment. Actions that would have shocked society now have a difficult time producing a collective blush.

The epitome of America's jaded attitude toward immoral behavior was evidenced in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Other than being the butt of jokes, it seems that neither suffered too much in the way of indignity. In fact, the former president and Ms. Lewinsky seem to have profited quite well in spite of the fact their sexual dalliances were revealed to the public.

It seems that few in American society are ashamed today of even the most outrageous behavior. Illicit and even illegal behaviors appear to have become stepping stones to fame and fortune rather than occasions for shame and remorse.

One recent example of the above is the experience of Jessica Cutler earlier this year. Using the pseudonym Washingtonienne, the 26-year-old Capital Hill staffer wrote about her immoral sexual exploits and published them on the Internet via a Weblog (she even used her office computer to post the accounts of her lurid liaisons). Before her identity was exposed and she was subsequently fired, Cutler had become known as the Harlot on the Hill.

Once upon a time such behavior would have resulted in shame and perhaps remorse. However, in a nation where sin no longer exists, as far as public perception is concerned, Cutler is rewarded. Hyperion, the publishing arm of the Disney Corporation, signed her to a book deal reported to be worth $300,000. In addition, Cutler will bare it all in the pages of Playboy-for a hefty price, of course.

Another illustration of the absence of shame in our culture is evidenced in the public's reaction to the recent revelations by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey. On Aug. 12, 2004, McGreevey confessed to having committed adultery with another man. He then submitted his resignation as governor to be effective Nov. 15. Before sin and shame vanished from the American conscience, such a revelation on the part of an elected official would have been disastrous. Instead, according to Newsday.com, McGreevey's approval rating actually rose in the wake of his confession.

In his book, Dr. Menninger posed the question: "Whatever became of sin?" If he were alive today, he might well ask, "Whatever became of shame?" Both concepts have vanished from America's moral landscape. However, the consequences remain and, like unseen termites, they are eating away at our nation's ethical foundation.

Like any good doctor, Menninger prescribed a solution to the problem of "vanishing" sin. Menninger called on America's clergy to: "Preach! Tell it like it is. Say it from the pulpit. Cry it from the housetops." He continued, "Cry comfort, cry repentance, cry hope. Because recognition of our part in the world transgression is the only remaining hope"

His prescription is still the only remaining hope.

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