Two pathologies of loyalty

Loyalty is a good thing, right?

Word history that I did not know until just now (thank you, Merriam-Webster): English “loyal” derives from Old French leel or leial, which in turn derives from Latin legalis. How do you get from “legal” to “loyal”?

Apparently the oldest sense of “loyalty” has to do with unswerving allegiance to one to whom you legally owe allegiance, namely, to your king or queen, or more generally, to your government.

But from there, the word extends to a faithfulness to a private individual to whom faithfulness is due, such as your partner in a covenanted relationship (husband, wife). And then beyond that, to faithfulness to a “cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.” Thus saith Merriam-Webster.

The example that is missing from this definition is: one’s own people or tribe. It’s implied, perhaps, in the M-W definitions, but not explicitly stated. But the fiercest loyalties these days seem to be tribal: I am loyal to people who are genetically related to me—family, clan, denizens of the same region or nation, members of the same political party.

How can loyalty become a bad thing?

Seems to me there are two ways.

One way would be choosing an illegitimate object of loyalty: giving one’s allegiance to someone or something that doesn’t deserve it. You could be the most selflessly committed Nazi in the world, but you don’t get moral credit for that.

Another way would involve a legitimate object of loyalty—but being faithful to excess, i.e., giving allegiance beyond the extent to which allegiance is due. Now, sometimes extending loyalty beyond what is due is a good thing, as in laying down your life for a friend. But it is bad when it means breaching a higher or equal obligation to faithfulfulness to another person or principle, as in refusing to testify against your buddy who has committed a serious crime.

Why am I thinking about loyalty today?

Same reason as for most of the things I find myself compelled to think about these days: the agitated, heated confusion swirling all around us in our social-political-religious environment.

Yesterday a friend pointed me to the story of a New York Times columnist who has resigned because, she says, her liberal colleagues became intolerant of, and positively hostile towards her centrism. I think most of my conservative friends would consider her a liberal, which is another interesting story. She calls herself centrist.

Reading about her case let me to a Toronto Globe & Mail column by a progressive who complains about progressives turning on their own. He uses the word “cannibalism.” He cites recent attacks by progressives on Margaret Atwood and J. K. Rowling. No need for me to get into those details.

But there’s also the news story about the defeat of Jeff Sessions in the primary election to select the Republican candidate for one of the US Senate seats from Alabama.

It occurs to me that these two stories represent not just randomly different cases of loyalty failure but two characteristic pathologies, one of the right (or, these days, the Trumpists) and one of the left (these days, the Democratic anti-Trumpists).

Jeff Sessions threw his support behind Trump early on and was rewarded with a seat in the cabinet. He was tossed out of that seat for disloyalty. What Trump perceived as disloyalty was Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation. By normal standards, Sessions was right to recuse himself, because he was at least on the level of appearances implicated in the question himself. But Trump demanded—always demands—loyalty to himself above any and every other loyalty. So Session was out. And when he sought the Republican nomination for his old Senate seat, Trump endorsed his opponent. And that is the characteristic pathology of the right these days. With regard to Trump qua president, you could say that the president does indeed deserve loyalty from those who serve in his administration; but they owe a higher debt of loyalty to the US Constitution in particular, and to truth and goodness in general.

The defining defect of Trumpist loyalty is that it places personal loyalty to Trump higher than every other loyalty—whether to principles or to persons—and justifies itself both by denying the truth that it is breaching these other loyalties and also by masking the personal loyalty to Trump as loyalty to something else—e.g., to the unborn. No amount of demonstrating that Trump is breaching a higher loyalty (too many examples), or that Trump is not really serving the higher loyalty that one claims (the elevation of life over death) has any effect. The Trumpist denies, deflects, refuses to see—and in imitation of the god of Trumpism himself, accuses you, usually heatedly, of all the sins of which Trump himself provides the most extreme example.

For me as a Christian, this is most galling when loyalty to Trump supersedes loyalty to the family of faith. How many people have abandoned their churches between 2016 and now because even in cases where they were not explicitly criticized for being Trumpists (which I am sure happened) they sensed that their new loyalty was seen as suspect, as defective? If you hang out with pastors and they trust you, you will know that this happened in many congregations. (All the more reason to love the Trumpists who have stayed with you.)

There really is also a typical pathology of loyalty on the left as well. It is not excessive loyalty to any particular person or to the tribe in general. It is excessive loyalty to principle, or to what is claimed as principle. Any particular person can be thrown under the bus in the blink of an eye for transgressing any element of a comprehensive progressive program. The Rowling and Atwood examples fit here, and maybe the recently resigned NYT columnist, and the pro-life Democrats.

Both pathologies are pathologies. The leftist pathology is a kind of immaturity. It represents lack of seasoning. People who are going to share loyalty to a principle have to be willing and able to extend each other grace when they do not all see the extensive applicability of that principle to all the same cases at the same time. Otherwise the progressive camp becomes as much of a snake pit as the Trump White House.

I suppose the rightist pathology—which at the moment amounts to a personality cult complicated by numerous resentments and prejudices—could be seen as an immaturity as well, but it strikes me as more of an ossification, a hardening of the arteries, a kind of senile dementia, or a relieved dropping of all pretense: no longer having to keep up the appearance of not being a chauvinist (whether with regard to nation, race, class, or gender). It is a form of despair.

There are old progressives and young Trumpists, but the typical Trumpist is the old white man (or patriarchalist woman), while the typical over-the-top, shrill, intolerant progressive is young.

Forced to choose between them, I’m more hopeful about people who are committed to principle, but guilty of an error with regard to the application of the principle, than about people who are absolutely committed to one person, especially when it’s a person whose own glaring defects breach every principle to which they putatively hold. The latter pathology seems to me a much clearer case of idolatry, which is the archetypal sin, and becomes the unpardonable sin when it is paired with the attribution to Satan of good works performed by those who don’t join the cult, or with a refusal to see and accept grace.

Loyalty to an anomos, a man of lawlessness, can never be legitimate. (For Vulgate readers: the iniquus of 2 Thess 2:8 is properly an illegalis.)

Also, you can argue with someone who is in principle committed to loyalty to principle—or if you can’t, because they have “canceled” you, someone else can. No one can argue with a straight-up idolater.


P.S. I feel I must append what I think is obvious: not everyone who has voted or considered voting for Trump is a straight-up idolater, and not every Democrat or progressive is shrill and intolerant, nor is every progressive more loyal to principle than to personalities.

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