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“No one’s ever invited me to a cocaine party or an orgy, and I’ve been working in Washington for years.”

I never thought I’d say those words, but I did recently when a younger Christian asked me, in hushed tones, whether it’s true that members of Congress are snorting cocaine and organizing sex parties. I stared back blankly, wondering if this man knew that Congress resembles more a senior adult bingo night than a fraternity house.

I quipped that I’ve never heard of much of that going on but that maybe I just wasn’t invited— people aren’t likely to invite a Baptist preacher if they want to put together a coke-fueled bacchanal.

This week US Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) described people he once respected inviting him to do such things, speaking of the series House of Cards as an accurate depiction of life in Congress—controversial allegations that were swiftly refuted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and others.

Personally, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone who works in government describe the situation in such terms. However, I know that many people—namely, Christians—assume that any place with a lot of non-Christians who have a whole lot of power will be like that.

One reason for this, I think, is that we often don’t understand just how boring the path to sin usually is.

The Bible speaks nowhere directly of cocaine, but it does address orgies in several places. The apostle Paul warns the church at Rome to walk away from “carousing and drunkenness, … sexual immorality and debauchery,” following up with the same warning about “dissension and jealousy” (Rom. 13:13). Both, he writes, are manifestations of the “desires of the flesh” (v. 14).

In contrasting the “works of the flesh”’ with the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, Paul warns not only about sins such as drunkenness, orgies, and witchcraft but also—in the same list—about much more “respectable” and “boring” desires of the flesh such as “jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy” (vv. 20–21).

Nowhere else have I seen a reference put jealousy and envy in the same category as “orgies, and the like.” When we think of “the flesh,” we tend to think of dramatic rebellion—the kind that people would want to gossip about—not about matters as dull and (we think) innocuous as jealousy or envy.

In many cases, sin does express itself in shocking debauchery—but most often it expresses itself in more invisible or easily justifiable ways of “walking in the flesh.”

Is Washington filled with sex-and-drug parties? There are probably a lot fewer of them than you think. But is Washington filled with the sins of the flesh? Absolutely, that’s the case.

This shows up more often, though, in careerists drinking alone in their offices late at night than it does in wild parties. It shows up more in people whose flesh burns for the external validation of election wins and media hits than in anything resembling a night in Caligula’s court.

The greatest temptations in Washington are seldom for those who want to fight for their right to party but for those who perhaps joined politics precisely because they weren’t invited to parties back in high school or earlier.

Most enticements on Capitol Hill are to lie in order to undercut a partisan “enemy” or to simmer in resentment over not being as high profile as another politician or bureaucrat. In other words, the typical temptations are not as glitzy and obviously transgressive as much as they are sad and lonely.

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Even in the realm of ordinary work in Washington, most people expect that the biggest problem is hypocrisy—people calling someone whom they privately hate “my good friend” so-and-so in public. That is a problem, but it’s a much bigger issue within partisan and ideological tribes than between them.

In what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences,” many people are far more resentful of those who are like them, whom they perceive as rivals, than of people they denounce on television or in fundraising emails.

In fact, the big secret in Washington is often that there are people who actually like each other but could never be seen shaking hands or laughing together in public. In a tribalized America, that sort of basic human connection looks like disloyalty. So what ends up being theatrical is not just the “unity” of the partisan solos but also their divisive animosity toward the other side.

Sometimes, stark and dramatic assumptions about other people’s sin can lead to horrific consequences. The people spreading conspiracy theories about politician-led, Satan-worshiping pedophile rings know these things are lies. But they market such to people who don’t, which has led to actual threats of violence.

At other times, the result is more subtle—an erosion of truth that leads to even more cynicism and a disconnect between authority and power.

But even in the more benign cases, Christians can err by assuming that the line between Spirit and flesh is always dramatic, when it is often far more subtle. This shows up in the church as much as, if not more than, it does in the world. The Bible tells us that too: At one point the sin within the church at Corinth was, Paul wrote, “of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1).

If we don’t see this, then we will be rattled—not so much by the outside world engaging in obvious sin but by people who really don’t seem to be supervillains and who genuinely want to do the right thing giving in to desires of the flesh.

And we’ll be shaken when those who tell us we must ascribe to a certain “Christian” worldview to withstand the barbarians outside are themselves revealed to be filled with envy, rivalry, jealousy, fits of anger—and sometimes with orgies and cocaine too.

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

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