The news story that broke the other day about the sex and drug scandal involving a prominent Evangelical preacher in Colorado brought back memories of a late night television broadcast my wife and I watched some 20 years ago. We were fresh off the boat, so to speak, having just arrived in the US a week or two earlier. My wife had never set foot in America before and I hadn’t lived here for nearly a decade. So, as a way of (re-) acquainting ourselves with American culture, we were flipping through the channels one night, and came across a broadcast of a preacher histrionically sermonizing about faith, sin, redemption, and salvation. Part mesmerized, part repelled by his prancing and posturing, by the flow of tears and the howling, neither of us really knew what to make of it…
Not long after that, we recognized pictures of this same man, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, splashed across the front pages and nightly news broadcasts. Little did we know that he had been, up until that point, one of the most successful and powerful televangelists in the country. But, he had been caught repeatedly on film in the company of prostitutes. And although Swaggart weepingly confessed his sins and pledged to make things right with God, it was not enough to save his ministry.
The Swaggart episode was engineered by a former minister in his church who himself had been fired for an adulterous escapade and it had come on the heels of an even more lurid sex scandal in which fellow evangelist Jim Bakker was accused of paying hush money to quiet allegations of rape.
So, the news from Colorado got me thinking, “What is it with these guys?” What is it about people so sanctimonious in their pronouncements about the way people should and shouldn’t conduct themselves but who can’t keep to the straight and narrow in their own lives? How could it be that Ted Haggard, the disgraced Colorado preacher could publicly condemn homosexuality and be such an outspoken proponent of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, while hiring male prostitutes?
It is tempting to dismiss these wayward ministers as hypocrites, lumping them together with politicians, unscrupulous corporate executives and other favorite targets of popular contempt. But, there is more to this phenomenon than that.
Compensation is a concept that both homeopathy and psychology share. It is a mechanism by which a person conceals or counterbalances an internal state of being by developing a set of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that apparently are very different. In fact, quite often these are the polar opposite.
It is easy to mistakenly assume that a highly compensated person truly embodies the overtly displayed behaviors or proclaimed beliefs without detecting the inner reality they are meant to conceal. He himself is often equally unaware. Compensation does not come about through conscious decision making, but is instead a subconscious strategy which all of us, to one extent of the other, employ to feel safer and function more smoothly in the world.
I recall a patient who was a strict vegan (a form of vegetarianism were no animal products, even milk or eggs, are eaten) and extremely devoted to animal rights causes. While her devotion to these beliefs was admirable, at the same time she expressed them with a discomforting strident adamancy. In the course of the consultation, the reason for that unyielding dedication was revealed when she described constantly recurring dreams of incredible violence where, for the most part, she was the perpetrator. Clearly, her lifestyle was a compensatory mechanism to keep in check her own brutality.
The study of homeopathic remedies often reveals various states of compensation. For instance, one of our very commonly used medicines is made from the coniferous tree Arbor Vitae, otherwise known as Thuja. The internal state of a person needing Thuja, like other members of the conifer family, is one of great weakness.
More specifically, it is experienced as a sense of hollowness and fragility, a brittleness that can easily fragment and shatter. On a psychological level, the fragmentation manifests as disconnectedness, leading to a feeling of isolation. In addition, one of the characteristics distinguishing Thuja from other conifers is a compulsion to hide their state. They experience their fragility, emptiness and disassociation as an innate, irreparable weakness and survival in the world demands it be covered up lest it be discovered.
A common compensatory strategy of a Thuja thus becomes to hide his fragility by being very rigid in the way he thinks while, a the same time, denying any urges or impulses that might reveal the true inner state. This can develop into a type of fanaticism or monomaniacal obsession. Regardless of the arena in which he is involved, be it religion, politics – or even homeopathy, a deep fear that the slightest deviancy from orthodoxy might fatally expose his own weakness, compels him to be unyieldingly dogmatic.
The Bakkers, Haggards and Swaggerts of the world are not truly hypocrites anymore than the rest of us. For whatever reason, their need for compensatory behavior is unusually strong, but it is doubtful that they made deliberate, conscious choices to hide their real selves through sermonizing and moralizing. The urge to preach, more than likely, was experienced as a compulsion, a ‘calling’ if you will. In their own language, one might say it was a calling from God to fight temptation and sin… And that is a very apt description.