While tooling down the expressway recently, I noticed billboards advertising three separate television programs involving a judge: “Judge Judy,” “Judge Mathis” and “Judge Hatchett.” As you likely know, these are only three of many more such shows that fill the airwaves of daytime television.
More to it, almost all of the “reality shows” that have sprung up in the last decade involve some sort of judgment. “Survivor” culminates with a gathering of the tribe and a solemn decision to vote someone off the program. “Dancing With the Stars” is a fierce competition presided over by three judges, who objectively assess the performances of celebrity dancer-wannabes. And the premier television show of the past 10 years, “American Idol,” features one of the most ruthless and infamous judges ever to appear in popular culture: Simon Cowell.
Finally, even the most casual survey of television talk shows reveals how central to their success is an act of judgment. Jerry Springer’s audience is presented with some deeply dysfunctional individual, and after sufficient prompting from the host, they erupt in shouts of vociferous disapproval. And Dr. Phil’s show reaches its high point when the good doctor bluntly tells some poor couple exactly what is wrong with their marriage and why they have to change their lives radically. There are almost invariably tears of shame and regret.
Now here is what I find fascinating: This obsession with judgment exists in our culture side by side with an enormous stress on toleration and acceptance. We tell ourselves all the time that we are a non-judgmental people; we pride ourselves on our open-mindedness; and if there is one value we would claim as absolute it might be: Never do anything that would lower another person’s self-esteem.
Christina Aguilera sang in a popular song from a few years ago: “I am beautiful in every single way; words can’t bring me down.” And the greatest villain in the eyes of the self-esteem establishment is undoubtedly the Catholic Church.
Again and again we hear that Catholicism, especially in matters of sex and lifestyle, is “judgmental” and “intolerant.” I have encountered numerous people who refer to themselves as “recovering Catholics,” comparing the harsh Church to a wounding disease.
Perhaps I was premature in calling the Church the prime villain, for behind the Church is God himself, the Supreme Judge. In the atheist literature that is so prevalent today, we hear over and again how cruel, manipulative, domineering and demanding is the God of the Bible. Christopher Hitchens compared living under the regime of the judging God to living in a “spiritual North Korea.”
Well, how do we read these two dimensions together? How do we make sense of both Christina Aguilera and Simon Cowell? A principle that I find extremely helpful is this: A repressed religious value does not go away; it comes up elsewhere in somewhat distorted form. Authentic judgment — which the self-esteem police have tried to eliminate — has its revenge, because, deep down, we know that judgment is indispensable to the development of a healthy personality and the maintenance of a rightly functioning society.
Truth vs. self-esteem
What I mean by judgment here is clear and unambiguous truth-telling, the placing of things, both good and bad, in the light that permits them to appear as they really are.
Both Simon Cowell and Judge Judy are instructive. Simon regularly tells terrible singers that they are terrible and that they will never make it as professional entertainers. His interventions are often met with tears, obscene gestures and angry words, but we watch Simon, not just because he’s a master of the one-liner, but because he is, more often than not, right. And we know that his harsh words are actually going to benefit the pathetic performers whom he addresses.
Judge Judy, having heard a plaintiff or defendant present his case, will often respond, “that doesn’t make any sense; so it’s probably a lie.” Trained in the etiquette of self-esteem, we’re flummoxed by this kind of directness, but we’re also convinced that she’s usually right and that her truth-telling, in the long run, benefits those whom she judges.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, Simon Cowell and Judge Judy can tell us a good deal about God. It’s true that the God of the Bible is presented consistently, and sometimes disconcertingly, as a judge. But this does not mean that he is vindictive; it means that he shines the light of his truth on human affairs. When that light falls on sin, deceit, injustice and corruption, things get uncomfortable, but so be it. For only through such painful judgment do real healing and progress take place. The Church, in its formal teaching, is a servant of the Divine Judgment, and therefore a source of illumination and, finally, salvation.
Perhaps we might consider all of the judges whom we obviously love to watch to be minor icons of the Judge in whose light we ought to live.
Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org, is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary.