Performative Virtue & the “Prius Effect”

Today I was stopped at an intersection behind a Toyota Prius.  Stuck to the back, the Prius had a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker, one that said “Healthcare for all,” and another: “Biden/Harris 2020.” 

A few feet from the car, a young woman held a cardboard sign that read, “Hungry.  Anything helps.”

Now I’m not judging that Prius-driver for bumper stickers I happen to agree with, and I’m not judging her for not stopping for the woman with the sign.  I’m not judging because I didn’t stop for her, either.  But the juxtaposition struck me, the way my own comfortable life does, and Corvallis itself does for that matter – such a progressive and affluent little city.  We generally say and believe the “correct” things… but do we live like it?  Do our values translate into our behavior toward fellow humans?  Or would we prefer to write a check, and keep the ugly truth off our lawn?

And this isn’t really about Corvallis, Oregon, is it?  This conflict between virtue and personal discomfort is a human problem, and its one our congregation has had to wrestle with in a very public way for a couple of years.

Trust me, I’m not innocent here.  Performative virtue, the act of differentiating myself with my correct beliefs and attitudes, has shown up throughout my life.  I did it as a young, fiery Evangelical.  I did it as a Republican undergrad…  And, oops, right now I’m doing it with this post: I am demonstrating to you my sensitivity and thoughtfulness without actually taking any action: this blog post costs me nothing.

And I can even further the perception of my sensitivity and thoughtfulness by self-reflecting on the meaning of it all. Which I am.

I read an article years ago (can’t find it via Google right now) about the comparative bad behavior of people driving hybrid and electric cars.  They called it “The Prius Effect.”  Basically, people who drove an eco-friendly car tended to behave worse than other drivers.  They had bought some “moral equity,” and the payoff for their virtuous vehicle was disobeying traffic laws and giving other drivers the figurative finger.

Please don’t be offended if you drive a Prius.  I think your car choice is great.  But let’s dig deeper, underneath our outward signs of holiness.

Jesus said:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

Matthew 23:27


So are we beautiful on the outside, or the inside? 

In seminary we discussed the difference between orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”) and how Western Christianity has been largely defined by its thinking rather than its behavior.  In more down-to-earth language, one of my mentors used to say, “Being kind is more important than being right.” 

At the end of most days, I can go to bed without having been uncomfortable in any way.  I can keep living without personal sacrifice.  My neighborhood is still safe and clean and largely white (no campers here, yet). When the privileged (and I include myself here with an exclamation point!) willingly opt for personal discomfort, radical change can happen. Until then, we’re writing checks to Rotary while Jesus sits on a corner, holding his sign. He’s hungry.

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