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A Culture That Cheats

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, January 14, 2013

A Culture That Cheats

It seems Lance Armstrong is getting ready to admit doping in an attempt at a comeback in competitive sports. Doing so would not only admit to having cheated, but acknowledge years of egregious and repeated lying. 

News of the anticipated admission comes the same week baseball writers refused to name any new players to the Hall of Fame. Famed players Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens were among those eligible, but their career achievements have been tainted by alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

As Sharon Jayson of USA Today noted, dishonesty has been on something of a roll. “Cheating is nothing new,” she writes. “But the stream of famous faces and institutions that got caught up in it this year seems unprecedented.” 

She calls 2012 the “Year of the Cheater.”

Need a reminder?

Beyond Lance Armstrong and the baseball snafu, there was David Petraeus, Goldman Sachs, Harvard, the Air Force Academy and Olympic athletes. “From sports doping to cooking the books, test-taking schemes and extramarital affairs, the list of very public cases goes on and on. … Americans hardly seem shocked anymore.”

And what is the effect of such widespread and publicized behavior? 

As people are exposed to more dishonesty around them, says criminology consultant Tom Gabor, it “has a snowball effect. It legitimizes further dishonest behavior.” So the increase in high-profile cheaters is desensitizing all of us to cheating as a whole. If it seems “everyone” is doing it, then it becomes even more pervasive and socially acceptable.

This would explain the annual high school survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics which found that 51 percent of all high school students admitted cheating on an exam in the past year. 

Technology seems to be helping us fall in the moral abyss. Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University, says the Internet has created new opportunities to blur ethical bounds. “People have redefined what constitutes cheating in line with the technologies available now.” A study in the Journal of Business Ethics concurs, finding that the more online help college students were able to use for an assignment, the more likely they were to copy others’ work.

As I pointed out in Serious Times, the radical nature of this shift in culture should not be missed. It is not simply that people are less moral today than in previous years, though they arguably are. What has emerged in new and startling ways is the claim that things such as cheating are no longer wrong

To borrow from the prophet Jeremiah, we have become a people who do not even know how to blush (Jeremiah 6:15). We no longer even think we need to. 

Today, “a man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct” -- to borrow from Dorothy L. Sayers -- “and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.” 

And we certainly are not going to say it of ourselves.

But why should we? 

What matters is what everyone else is doing.

And everyone else is cheating.

James Emery White



“Lance Armstrong could admit doping in attempt to make comeback,” The Telegraph, January 25, 2013, read online.

“Dishonesty was on display everywhere,” Sharon Jayson, USA Today, Thursday, December 27, 2012, read online.

Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins” from The Whimsical Christian.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Culture That Cheats