Two men go to the temple to pray, one the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other a Trump-voting American fundamentalist. Archbishop Justin, standing before ITV’s Robert Peston, prays: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, Tories, pro-lifers, patriots, climate change deniers, wealth creators, welfare state haters, women’s ordination objectors, Islamophobes, homophobes, transphobes, Jacob Rees-Mogg or even like this fundamentalist Christian Trump-voter. I support Fair Trade and food banks. I challenge Wonga and high street banks.I pray for the UN climate summit in Paris. I issue press releases on child refugees and terrorist attacks. I denounce Brexiteers and praise Remainers.’

The Trump-voter, standing far off, will not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast, saying: ‘I am a garbage collector from America’s Rust Belt struggling to raise a family. I voted for Trump. God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Jesus’s much-loved parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a classic text on the dynamics of virtue signalling. The Pharisee, like the Archbishop, is seeking moral approbation. On ITV, Welby said he ‘really genuinely’ does not comprehend why fundamentalist churchgoers voted for Trump. There are a number of features to this liturgy of sanctimonious virtue signalling.

First, it is public, performed in the Temple or on TV. Second, it is effortless. It involves no risk. Third, it is elitist. The Pharisee is not like the Publican. The Archbishop is not like the American. Fourth, it is exclusive. The Pharisee and the Archbishop exclude sinful publicans, Republicans, and creepy fundamentalists crawling out of Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables.’ Fifth, it is self-centred. The camera must focus on I, me and myself – a trait Martin Luther termed homo incurvatus in se: man curved in on himself.

James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare of Nations, coined the term ‘virtue signalling’ in 2015. ‘One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous,’ he notes. ‘It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.’ While researching his previous book, The Welfare State We’re In, Bartholomew realised that the Victorians and Edwardians gave more to charity than today’s citizens. Even the working classes gave around 10 per cent of their income, compared with less than 1 per cent for today’s overall population. Today, people think they are virtuous because they vote Labour and express hatred of Right-wingers. ‘That is not virtue.’ writes Bartholomew. ‘That is lazy, self-righteous and silly.’

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, proved Bartholomew’s point last week, when he returned to the safe spaces of the BBC studios to be interviewed by Andrew Marr, and donned his dog collar after the fall of Robert Mugabe. Sentamu cut up his collar on the Andrew Marr Show in 2007 in protest against Mugabe.

Sentamu did not visit Zimbabwe and demonstrate outside Mugabe’s palace. He would have been thrown into prison. That would have been a virtuous act of protest requiring real courage. Your publicity stunt really had Mugabe quaking in his boots, did it not, Archbishop? You could have made a Mugabe voodoo doll and stuck pins into it! Sentamu’s act was a feel-good virtue-signalling feat. He felt good and enjoyed the publicity. Andrew Marr felt good because the BBC had done its bit to virtue signal its opposition to Mugabe. We all felt good because we had vicariously demonstrated our hatred for Mugabe.

Jesus warns against virtue signalling when he asks his disciples to ‘beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them’. He ridicules religious leaders who make ‘their phylacteries broad and their fringes long’ (and slice their dog collars in television studios).

Social psychologists Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke prefer to categorise such behaviour as ‘moral grandstanding’ – public moral discourse aiming to convince others that you are ‘morally respectable’. Others must judge you as ‘worthy of respect or admiration’ because of ‘some particular moral quality – for example, an impressive commitment to justice, a highly tuned moral sensibility, or unparalleled powers of empathy. To grandstand is to turn one’s contribution to public discourse into a vanity project,’ they argue. Sentamu’s vanity project lasted ten years and was made visible by the empty space around his neck.

There are life and death issues in the North of England over which Sentamu presides. Clergy survivors of sexual abuse have been pleading with him for justice. Fr Matthew Ineson, one of the victims, tweeted this a couple of days ago: ‘Today is the 98th day since risk assessment request on Bishops Sentamu, Croft, Snow & Burrows (for failure to act on disclosures of child abuse & leave a priest child sex abuser 5 years to potentially abuse again) sent to @JustinWelby STILL no reply. Why? Child abuse unimportant?’ Teenage white underclass girls in northern towns have been raped by mostly Pakistani Muslim men on an industrial scale. The C of E is haemorrhaging members over the failure of its hierarchy to uphold orthodox teaching in the face of a militant sexually permissive zeitgeist.

Welby or Sentamu haven’t let out the tiniest squeak of protest or opposition.

Ironically, the rise of virtue signalling parallels a growing interest in Aristotelian virtue ethics. Philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue and Bishop N T Wright in his book Virtue Reborn have both stressed the importance of virtue as building character.

But virtue signalling is the opposite of virtue. Real virtue is done without drawing attention, is in harmony with reason and natural law, and is directed toward helping others or toward God. Virtue signalling turns virtue ethics on its head because it must be readily visible, it is silly and unreasonable and it does not help anybody, says Kevin Clark.

The most devastating consequence of virtue signalling is that it becomes a substitute for character building and replaces Aristotle’s four principal virtues of courage, justice, prudence and temperance with publicity stunts, sound bites, Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter shares.

Oh, by the way, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, took a virtue-signalling HIV test last week. ‘It’s just a pinprick. A simple, pain-free test. And the staff I dealt with were lovely, putting me completely at ease,’ Bayes said. Poor Jesus, I thought! He had to endure a crown of thorns on his head, nails through his hands, and a spear thrust into his side.


  1. James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare of Nations, coined the term ‘virtue signalling’ in 2015

    Just to get the pedantry rolling … NOPE.

    The blog post and the blog that the link leads to might well be a steaming pile of whackjob pseudo-intellectual multiculti gender theory cultural marxist bollox, but :

    Monday, 12 December 2011

    Ultrasocial individuals acquire more memes (and organic symbionts), and these are (on average) good.
    Ultrasocial individuals get to influence others with their memes (and organic symbionts) more – spreading their own influence in the process, and gaining reputation and status credits that can be cashed in later.
    This explanation complements explanations involving, virtue signalling, kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

    NOT that I’m suggesting that this fool invented the term either, as I believe it’s been banging around since the late 20th Century.

  2. Firstly, kudos for referring to that most eminent New Testamentarian, N.T.Wright! No virtue signaller he …!

    Secondly, I read your title of ‘easy virtue’ as signpost to the more profound and therefore complicated book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ where he writes on ‘Cheap and Costly Grace’. IMHO, ‘easy virtue’ grows on the spiritual dungheap of ‘Cheap Grace’ …

    • What a wonderful comparison! I actually thought of Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’ myself when reading this column. You’re so right!

  3. I have real problems with the bit about the Bishop of Liverpool. He took a HIV test, to use his position to put people at ease who are at risk and are apprehensive. There is a lot of stigma about HIV, as there was in biblical times about leprosy. So was Jesus virtue signalling when he healed lepers? Was St Francis virtue signalling when he preached to the carrion birds?

    In this instance I think the term virtue signalling is being used to denigrate a simple act of Christian charity. And in any case it is not up to the author of this article to make that judgment.

    • Nonsense. Firstly there is no evidence that people are apprehensive about taking a HIV test. Secondly, to compare Jesus curing a leper with a bishop taking a medical test shows a complete of lack of understanding of Christianity.

      Why is the bishop not taking a lung cancer test? The NHS is encouraging people in Manchester to take a test for lung cancer, targetting smokers who are most at risk ( Lung cancer kills a lot more people than HIV in this country but it’s not a politically correct disease so the bishop won’t be doing anything to encourage people to take this test.

      • No stigma associated with HIV? Really? And, as I say, it really isn’t up to you or the ‘Rebel Priest’ to judge the bishop.

        • I never stated or implied that HIV was without stigma, please pay attention. We all make judgments – including you. You can be honest about the fact you’re making judgments (which are an essential part of what it means to be human) or – like you – pretend you’re not.

          • Yes, there is a difference between judging as in condemnation (we are not qualified) and judging as in discernment. We cannot help but notice the fruit on the tree and make a logical assumption as to the kind of tree.

        • That is not what he wrote. There is no stigma associated with taking an HIV test. And if you do it publicly and talk about it, then it is grandstanding– virtue signalling. Hardly a Christian thing to do. Like Pharisees being proud that they were not lepers.

          • See above Matthew 5 about lights and bushells. Also maybe stop worrying about the speck in the archbishop’s eye, and worry more about what’s in your own.

          • Sean,
            I don’t worry, period. But I cannot help but see the fruit on the Canterbury tree (noxious) and thus I am motivated to warn others to avoid partaking. And may I suggest you take your own advice?

        • In fact, Jesus asked us to judge when he warned us to watch out for the wolves–the false teachers. He also said that the true pastors were to warn their flock to guard against the wolves. So I guess there would have to be discernment and judgement.

    • Jesus’ miracles were a demonstration of the Kingdom of God. Biblical scholars are unanimous on this. In fact, John’s gospel uses the word ‘signs’ — not once does he call them miracles. They were not a publicity stunt seeking moral approbation. St Francis preached to the carrion birds. He did not have a band of spin-doctors doing their best to get him popularity ratings. Virtue signalling is very different from cultivating virtue. You don’t need to be a Christian to understand this. Aristotle says it best in his work Nicomachean Ethics.

  4. Matthew 6:1

    “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

    • Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

      • The verse that Uusikaupunki quotes applies when a signifcant motive is to make yourself look good. The verse you quote applies when the main motives are the love of God and love or your neighbour and another significant but lesser motive is to give a good example to others. If acting in that way attracts praise it would be natural to be pleased but you should not let that turn your head.

      • Yes, where these two scriptures meet is the vital issue of motivation. Self-praise is no praise at all. But obedience to God yields results that cause people to give praise to God, not the individual.

  5. One has to ask how it was that a Gaia-worshipping oil-man was fast-tracked into the Archbishopric of Canterbury or, indeed, how an Argentinian night-club bouncer became Pope ?

  6. Bishop Bayes was 100% sure that he’d pass the HIV test. But would he have told us if he’d failed? That would have required real virtue.

  7. And our Bishops are wondering why congregations are falling. There was a “Family Service” at my parish church today (I went to ring the bells, not to attend the service). It was pandemonium with uncontrolled children running around and what appeared to be a Power Point presentation.
    These days I prefer to wander into the church on a weekday and say a quiet prayer by myself, I don’t think computer taught faith is for me. And the walk to the church helps with my physical well-being!

      • There is a service using the old prayer book, but no music, if I’m prepared to get up early, but even that is sometimes cut short by the ‘music’ group wanting to set up their instruments and practice in the Lady Chapel.

  8. Hypocrisy is putting on an ego-inflating front– that the individual may come to believe
    in order to feel superior to others.

    Out of deep personal insecurity arises an inordinate desire hide one’s weaknesses from others and deny them to oneself. It leads to self-righteous pride and the desire to be better than others, which in turn leads to habits of being critical and judgmental— putting others down in order to build oneself up.

    It is typified by the fig leaf of virtue signaling; you must look good to others in order to hide the truth about oneself. But in the end, it is nothing but self-deception.

    As Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees revealed, hypocrisy is among the worst of sins. It keeps one mired in an unregenerated state— or at the very least, stuck in spiritual immaturity and
    shallowness. This is because such self-deceived denial of the truth about one’s own sinful state prevents repentance and confession of sin, which therefore effectively prevents spiritual regeneration and growth. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

  9. That HIV test. It identifies
    A positive test being essential before progressing to the rank of Bishop.

    • True. These Leftists, cultural Marxists need to be exposed in the worst possible manner to show their worth lest they masquerade like the angel of light and deceive us all.
      Some of them are so disgusting that they will not spare even a five year old prince from their predatory plans. My blood boils at their hypocrisy and the evil they want to spread. Archbishop or Dean makes no difference, they are all poisonous people spreading the evil of their ideology, they have nothing about the Christ in whose name they draw big fat salaries, enjoy big houses and job security… I wonder what their own children think of them? Or may be they have indoctrinated them as well with their destructive ideologies.

    • Me too. If Justin Welby doesn’t like people like me, I regard that as a compliment.

      BTW, I have heard nothing but good things about you and your orthodox Anglican church (All Saints, Fayetteville, ACNA).

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