Loyalty May Be Virtue or Vice

Faithful adherence to the sovereign or lawful government; spec. of government employees. Also, in later use, enthusiastic reverence for the person and family of the sovereign.

Definition of “loyalty” from the Oxford English Dictionary

The meaning of the word “loyalty” has vexed me recently. At home, we watched the classic movie, All the President’s Men, about how the Watergate story broke and developed 50 years ago. When young reporters Woodward and Bernstein went door-to-door to seek information, many people slammed the door on them. One woman, nearly in tears as they questioned her about President Nixon, charged (paraphrase): “You don’t understand loyalty.”

Loyalty is a mercurial virtue or moral emotion. It is among those moral emotions that some moral psychologists claim is of much higher value for conservatives than for liberals.

The meaning of loyalty is particularly interesting for a nation begun in an act of revolt, a betrayal of “the sovereign or lawful government.” The republic was founded in an act of betrayal against monarchy and a particular monarch.

Today, in the hearings regarding the events of January 6, 2021, the controverted meaning of loyalty is on display. The former president values loyalty to him personally, and many elected officials and candidates for office around the country evidence “enthusiastic reverence for the person and family of the sovereign,” just as the former president demands. Those who invaded the Capitol claimed they were the patriots, evidencing their loyalty to America. The vice president, in their perspective, was the traitor while, for the rest of us, his loyalty to his oath of office saved the nation from further chaos.

What is the difference between loyalty and sycophancy? Perhaps the latter is the extreme version of the former. And if the extreme becomes the definition, then there is no higher loyalty.

Witnesses in the U.S. House hearings, largely Republicans, reject loyalty to the person in favor of loyalty to the rule of law. “We are a nation of laws and not loyalty to particular persons,” is both the implicit and explicit moral claim of a constitutional republic.

For some persons, any action which is not blind loyalty is betrayal. That is both an un-American and un-Christian moral claim.

When a pastor sexually assaults a minor or uses their office to seduce a vulnerable congregant, and the situation becomes known, the reaction from parishioners ranges from loyalty to the person of their leader to loyalty to the principle of “believe the testimony.” So many congregations and victims of pastoral misconduct have been tormented by demons, sometimes for decades, because those in power quashed and buried actions that needed investigation. Those in power refused “to betray” the pastor and thus betrayed their fiduciary duties to everyone else.

My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, is roiled by conflicting loyalties. We cannot claim to be united or even to “love one another.” There are those of us who have been “the loyal opposition” to the denomination’s stance regarding homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage, staying and acting mostly within the system to change the system. Some of us decided we must transgress the prohibition out of loyalty to an understanding of God and the Bible that differs from the understandings embedded in the current policy. Are those who transgress the current Discipline of the church guilty of betrayal, or is the denomination’s stance a betrayal of Christian love?

Damiana Monastery icon Judas (Modern Coptic icon, painted by the nuns of Saint Demiana Monastery, Egypt)

Loyalty and betrayal are, of course, at the heart of the Christian narrative. Judas betrays Jesus, revealing his location to the temple authorities and then identities him to the temple police with a kiss. One of history’s most awful betrayals, right? Well, a bit more than 50 years ago the musical Jesus Christ Superstar challenged that interpretation.

In John’s gospel, the claim is Judas was a thief who stole from the common purse. The other gospel writers make no such allegation.

What if Judas thought Jesus would usher in a violent overthrow of the Romans and was deeply disappointed when it became increasingly clear that was not the case? What if he judged Jesus had betrayed his mission because Judas held a different understanding of how God was going to act? Then was his act one of betrayal or loyalty to a higher cause?

Loyalty may be a way of concealing self-interest, sycophancy, or tribalism.  And loyalty may be just what is needed when the going is tough.

Is loyalty a virtue of a vice? When is betrayal an act to support a higher or different loyalty? The answers require judgment.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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