Mark Sanford, George Tiller, and the Politics of Hypocrisy


Each time another Republican apostle of conservative family values is revealed to be a philandering hypocrite, it is tempting to lash out at their inability to live the values that they espouse.   The hypocrisy charge is certainly accurate.  John Ensign, Senator from Nevada who recently disclosed an affair with a campaign aide,  said that if he was caught in a scandal like the one that befell Larry Craig, he would resign.  When Mark Sanford, the Republican Governor of South Carolina, was in the House of Representatives, he enthusiastically supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton for his extra-marital affair, as did Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston who were carrying on their own affairs at the time.

But the charge of hypocrisy fundamentally misses the point that has been in dispute during the culture wars. The reality is that we are all of us human, and many of us are tempted to do things that violate our own deepest moral values or Biblical injunctions.  This is the point that disgraced public figures invariably invoke when they ask for forgiveness.  Jesse Jackson probably said it best: “God is not finished with me” meaning that he is a flawed and imperfect creature who is prone to do and say things that he knows he should not.  Whether it is Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich, or Bob Livingston, they invariably make the same point and it is persuasive because we know that it is true.

But it is this truth that the advocates of traditional values systematically deny.  They insist that the problem is not that we are human; the problem is that we are simply not trying hard enough to live up to the rules that the deity has laid out for us.  And they go on to insist that human laws must be structured to reinforce the divine commandments.  They say that not only must we not allow gay people to marry; we must be true to a conservative reading of Scriptures and  discourage any manifestation of homosexuality.   And this is also why they are so insistent that abortion represents a mortal sin.  Abortion and contraception are wrong because they free people to engage in adultery and nonmarital sex without suffering the consequences of unintended pregnancies.  Without these consequences, even more people will be tempted into sinful practices.

But this makes no sense.  If we are all like the politicians who get caught — frail, imperfect human beings who cannot actually live according to these Biblical rules — then it is only logical that the laws that we construct together should reflect a compassionate recognition of that fact. This means abandoning the ancient prejudice against homosexuality.  It also means that when a woman happens to follow her heart and gets pregnant, she should be able to correct the mistake through an abortion.  But, of course, the conservative culture warriors cannot see this point.  Their claim is that when we relax our laws, we will inevitably head down the slippery slope to Sodom and Gomorrah.  As Senator Santorum famously argued, if we start to tolerate gay sexuality, that will immediately give permission for advocates or man-on-dog relations and any other conceivable perversion.

In short, the conservative culture warriors understand that they are espousing a doctrine that upholds impossible standards.  But they do so out of the dubious conviction that without those particular standards, all standards would disappear.   For centuries, this exercise in hypocrisy had a certain rationality because it was connected with the sexual double standard.  Men could not realistically be expected to restrict their sexual impulses only to the marriage bed, even in those religions that allowed them multiple wives.  But the demand for sexual purity could be enforced on women with the most extreme consequences for any lapses.  This, of course, is the source of the original animus against abortion and birth control; they threaten to unleash women’s full exercise of their own sexuality.

But the culture warriors in the U.S. have had to pretend that they no longer embrace the sexual double standard.   Values of gender equality are now so deeply rooted in the culture that the double standard will not fly.  If religious leaders were to say openly that men can fool around and women cannot, their female congregants would quickly depart.  So they have been forced to update and revise the doctrine and pretend that both men and women can live up to these impossible standards.  They have gone from demonizing women for getting abortions to the new slogan that abortion demeans and degrades women.   But enforcing this type of hypocritical morality still requires that someone play the role of  demon -a representative of evil who wants to turn a once decent society into a land of uncontrolled sexuality.

These new demons are, of course, the abortion providers.  Men and women who compassionately provide a medical service that actual women need either because of unwanted pregnancies or serious medical indications have been identified as the spawn of Satan.  The women who go to these doctors have now been identified as innocents, since it is no longer politically expedient to label them with a scarlet letter.  But effectively, the same splitting goes on.  In the old days, boys would be boys, but women who lapsed from purity were candidates for stoning.  Now, however, boys are still boys, but we stone the abortion providers.  George Tiller, the Kansas physician who provided late term abortions,  died for the sins of Mark Sanford and all the other right wing theocrats.

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  • jodi-jacobson

    Dear Fred,

    Good points and I enjoyed your article.

    I disagree with one point, though: that the charge of hypocrisy misses the point. I fully acknowledge that human beings are imperfect and that we all strive to live up to certain values, but because we are human sometimes fail. That is a given. And the reasons we "fail" are often highly complex and personal.

    But there are two other issues here. One is that when politicians and keepers of the "public faith" espouse values not only in their personal lives, but in their political lives, and then deny people their basic human rights through legislation, policy, and funding, it is critical for us to keep reminding ourselves and others that it is not about the personal transgression, but the hypocrisy of imposing one set of standards on others than for themselves. 

    In essence I think that public officials have to hold a higher standard for themselves if and when they run their political campaigns as if they were the moral guardians of the rest of the population, or as if they knew the "one truth."
    Because part of the public narrative for so long has been one set of "values and morals," we need to keep uncovering this hypocrisy to change the narrative to understand that there are diverse views and diverse beliefs in this society and no one set is necessarily better than another.

    I also agree with your analysis of the biblical aspects for those who are fundamentalist christian or espouse the ideals of fundamentalist beliefs, but wanted to underscore that we don’t all share the same interpretations of what "the deity" laid out for us, and that is an important point to keep in mind.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
    Jodi

  • invalid-0

    Those who scream “hypocrisy” when it relates to private homosexual dalliances by those who preach against or legislate against homosexuality seriously underestimate the impact of gay oppression. When society deems that some people are less equal than others (the form of the oppression), there is enormous pressure on men and women to conform, to pronounce that they are not part of the unequal grouping, but they are in fact part of the equal grouping. Not everybody has the bottle to stand up and say, “I’m unequal, but society is the problem, not me.” Sometimes the Haggards of this world have to prove themselves by denouncing and legislating against themselves, in the hope that they will not get caught, in the hope that they will deflect suspicion by being the loudest anti-gay preacher in the pulpit. They deserve our sympathy and understanding, not our condemnation. The problem is not the hypocrisy, but the fact that society does not treat everybody equally.

  • aspen-baker

    HI Fred.  I have been thinking about these issues quite a lot lately, as I reflect back on my own experiences growing up Christian.  I saw these kinds of situations live out in my church – people who spoke out loudly about God, faith and living righteously, while behind the scenes I knew how far from those ideals they lived….but never was compassion for imperfect human lives spoke about or promoted.  This is the reason I stopped attending church. 

     

    I found this part of your article quite fascinating and it has given me a lot to think about: 

     

    "to update and revise the doctrine
    and pretend that both men and women can live up to these impossible
    standards"

     

    There is something noble and good about being on the path to living a best life and wanting to hold people to higher, better standards…but the treatment of people when they do not, or cannot, measure up is where I find the biggest problems.  

  • invalid-0

    There is something noble and good about being on the path to living a best life and wanting to hold people to higher, better standards…but the treatment of people when they do not, or cannot, measure up is where I find the biggest problems.

    I agree with you that there is something noble and good about aspiring to higher, better standards, but I disagree about the “hold people to”. It is unnecessary to worry about holding OTHER people to those standards when instead we should focus on our own behavior.

    The distraction of judging the moral purity of other people (which seems to always focus on those whose is inferior to ours), leads to smug self-righteousness.

    That said, in my personal opinion we absolutely must reject the idea that ‘moral guardians’ who want our money to support them while they make snide speeches and hateful public pronouncements about the behavior of other people, who promote laws that oppress and harass others for being ‘immoral’, who loudly call for sinners to be stoned and blame the resultant damage on the victims, and who then assert that there should be an entirely different set of more lenient punishments for themselves.

  • aspen-baker

    I think this is a good distinction, and thanks for bringing it up.  And yet, culturally, we do try to hold people to higher standards on all kinds of things – from ending an addiction to smoking, or eating more healthy, or living within your means and not going into debt – which is not really about morality or moral standards, but about cultural values that have been created because we think they will help people live better, healthier, longer lives.  And the same problem still remains – if you are not able to measure up, there is real cultural consequences – stigma, judgment – of people who are smokers, overweight, in debt, who have had abortions, etc…Same conundrum exists. 

     

    I have actually found it fascinating that Obama, as a smoker who has struggled with addiction, just passed some tough anti-smoking laws.  Is  he judging himself, stigmatizing himself??? Stigmatizing others like him? 

     

    Still thinking…

  • invalid-0

    And yet, culturally, we do try to hold people to higher standards on all kinds of things – from ending an addiction to smoking, or eating more healthy, or living within your means and not going into debt – which is not really about morality or moral standards, but about cultural values that have been created because we think they will help people live better, healthier, longer lives.

    I disagree that the purpose of cultural values is to help people live better, healthier, longer lives. I think the purpose of cultural values is to impose uniformity and punish deviations from shared attitudes, values, goals and practices even when they are demonstrably unhealthy and make people miserable, because that is how ‘the tribe’ and ‘traditional roles’ are defined and people confuse the customs of the tribe with the laws of nature.

  • invalid-0

    Great thread. I really enjoyed reading everyone’s opinion and learned quite a bit. On the topic of cultural values, I think that both crowepps and the prior writer are correct. Cultural values are not all aimed at “keeping the status quo.” Some are based on ancient, time tested, wisdom. But, some are also aimed at punishing those who deviate from the norm. This is neither good nor bad and there really is no solution for this. We need people not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie. Cultural values of the majority enforce these mores and there are consequence, some extemely severe, for violating these values.
    Hence, the severe problem that occurs when our cultural values derive from people, who are flawed and make mistakes, as opposed to human history (if your agnostic or atheist) or God (if your a deist or a theist).
    Great blog! Wish I had more time to comment, but I think I learn more by reading what others have to say.

  • invalid-0

    Another way of affirming cultural values is too praise and hold in high esteem people who meet high standards and to assist each other to succeed (when requested to do so) without being judgmental. I have moved many times during my life – I have always gotten more spiritual nourishment at churches that were focused on ‘let’s help each other be better’ than I have at those who spent a lot of time deploring the failures of others.

    Since smoking was mentioned, think about the difference to the public between ‘Helping You Quit’ programs and those vile ‘Smokers Don’t Care If They Kill Their Kids’ ads. Demonizing smokers does NOT make them quit, it just destroys the general civility. After all, if people get to sneer at, scold and insult strangers who smoke, why shouldn’t it be okay to do the same things to everyone else who they find irritating?