It's been a season for professional moral scolds to fall, exposed as perpetrators of the same sort of conduct they have noisily condemned. Both Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford (to a less vigorous extent) fall into this category.
As in the recent past, with page-sexting Mark Foley and bathroom-carousing Larry Craig and hooker-paying David Vitter, these downfalls have generated a fairly consistent apologia from the culturally conservative commentariat, who generally approve of vigorous public condemnation of what they see as sexual misconduct. (Hooker-paying Elliot Spitzer, himself a moral scold and petty Javert-wannabe, was a Democrat and did not enjoy such a defense from the right). That consistent apologia is summarized by Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing at NRO:
A politician’s failings do not render the beliefs to which he subscribes morally impotent. Facts remain. Marriage is a cornerstone. Under a bastardized and unfortunately widespread understanding of hypocrisy, it is “hypocritical” for someone who is not a perfect person to ever make a statement grounded in conscience, morality, or natural law. Presumably, then, all Christians should throw out their Book. The Bible is and always has been directed to sinners. And, save for the star of the show, the preaching comes from sinners, too. Christ warned Peter in Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In Romans, Paul said: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Men (and women) believing something and falling short has a long history.
Lopez' apologia is a somewhat more sophisticated version of the crass "well, liberals can't be hypocrites about this because they have no sexual morals to betray" that one hears in these circumstances.
Lopez' argument is reasonable to a certain extent. We are all fallible, certainly. Whether or not we subscribe to Christian beliefs, we fall short of norms of decency. And if any speck of wrong in any of us could render us unfit to judge, then nobody could ever enter the dialogue about decent behavior.
But Lopez lets hypocrites off the hook with several unfounded assumptions.
First, Lopez assumes — and invites us to assume — that Ensign's public moral stances before his fall were sincere. She wants us to take it for granted that he spoke out in defense of fidelity and traditional marriage out of a genuine concern for those values, rather than out of political pandering. I dissent from that assumption. Politicians take positions, at least in part, to get votes and to consolidate power. When a Pharasitical first-stone-thrower reveals that he has indulged in the very conduct he has previously condemned, it is entirely reasonable to inquire whether his prior words were calculated and hollow, and whether he ever actually held the "beliefs to which he subscribes", as Lopez presumes.
Second, Lopez assumes that an apology narrowly focused on the immediate wrongdoing is sufficient and admirable. It is not. An apology is a plea for an act of grace by another, a request for forgiveness to which one is not entitled and that the person asked is not obligated to give. In the religious context, a sincere confession expressly recognizes that forgiveness is an act of grace, not earned by the wretched person asking. Part of that sincerity — part of recognizing that any forgiveness comes from grace, not because we have earned it — is an explicit acknowledgment that what we are asking for is inconsistent with what we have offered others. Hence Elliot Spitzer's apology for indulging in expensive hookers was insufficient because he failed to acknowledge that he had used the power of the state to pursue people for doing exactly what he did. Ensign's and Sanford's apologies are insufficient because they fail to acknowledge that they have previously called for condemnation, not compassion, towards people who did what they did, and that therefore they are asking for forgiveness by grace, not by merit.
Is it possible for a professional moral scold to make a sufficient apology for doing himself what he has condemned in others? Yes. Here's what that part of the apology might look like:
I've done wrong. More than that, I've done something that I have freely condemned in others before. In the past, I've continued to condemn people for this sort of betrayal even after they have given apologies just like the one I have given today. Today I've asked people to let my family work out this issue in privacy in the wake of this apology, but I have not extended that lenity to others. Rather, I have joined in calls for the resignation of people who have done things like what I have done. I'm asking for patience, and mercy, today. But I know I have not earned it, and I know that I have denied it to others before me. If anyone is going to forgive me — if anyone is going to reserve judgment, or allow me to atone in private — it will have to be through grace, not merit.
That's an apology that would earn my respect, and lead me to believe that the politician's loudly proclaimed moral code was sincere.
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