Night of the Hunter
July 10, 2007 - 7:52pm ET
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The Internets are ablaze with the news that über-family values senator David Vitter of Louisiana was a habitué of a D.C. prostitute. Vitter is a big-time sanctity-of-marriage sort of cat, one who doesn't "believe there's any issue" more important than the proposed Constitutional amendment to "protect the sanctity of traditional marriages," who indeed finds the breakdown of marriage so dangerous to the republic that he spun an elaborate metaphor comparing gay marriage to "the crossroads where [Hurricane] Katrina met [Hurricane] Rita." He is a "true social conservative," adjudge the ones who know.
Thanks to the great Glenn Greenwald for researching those quotes. But Glenn also makes a mistake common to us liberals when he understands the meaning of this event as "hypocrisy"—saying one thing and believing another. The implication being: How many more examples—beyond politicians like Gingrich, Livingston, Giuliani, and Limbaugh; beyond clergy like Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard—do conservative Christians need before they wake up to the truth: that their leaders' pledges of fealty to the concept of "traditional marriage" are meaningless? And that these leaders, as a body, are worthless, only out for themselves?
The answer is: they will never "wake up." The answer is that conservative Christianity is a culture radically different from that of secular (or even religious) liberalism, and that to understand the political meaning of events like this for its members you have to understand that culture's rules. Most importantly, you must understand its rules about sin and redemption. Which are, at heart, an argument about human nature. "True social conservatives" don't reject their sinners—because we are all sinners. They call upon them to repent. Which suggests an entirely different political dynamic than the one native to the secular (or even religious) liberal mindset.
Ted Haggard, pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs and leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, provides the best case study. If you believe, as Haggard does, as do all his followers, and their religious tradition going back to time immemorial, that Satan is real, forever laying siege to the faithful, forever providing us tests of our faith, forever reminding us of mankind's inherently sinful nature--well, then, the kind of leader they will most respect would be the kind of person who feels that reality most intensely, and is able to communicate it most convincingly.
In fact, that kind of person may well be a gay man. He feels, and fights, the presence of Satan daily. He may even, one day, fall to His temptations. If he does, that does not mean he is a "hypocrite." It means he is human—all too human!—according to this worldview.
He will fall on his knees and beg the Lord for forgiveness. He will gather around him spiritual leaders, and pray. He will declare, as Haggard declared, ""I am a deceiver and a liar. There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life." (Vitter's version was, "This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.") He may, as Gingrich did, receive public absolution from a prominent minister. And after a time in the wilderness, they may return to their constituents' graces, who will bestow on them perhaps even more loyalty and affection than before.
Secular (and even religious) liberals will laugh and scoff, and call the whole sordid right-wing ritual a "free pass to sin".
And this will be a reasonable conclusion. It is true that this whole worldview contains within it a profound possibility of what economists call moral hazard—a perverse incentive built into a system that hastens the possibility of bad instead of good outcomes (by way of example, conservatives identify welfare payments as moral hazard: if you pay people who do not work, you give them an incentive not to work). The cynical—I would certainly count Gingrich among them—can exploit it to aggrandize their power.
But I have to insist that this worldview is not inherently about whitewashing accountability. At its best, the theology of sin and redemption is real—for those to whom Satan is real—and a real spur to moral living, to community-building, to humility, to compassion, to grace. It can be a genuine and mature worldview—one that recognizes that people are both good and evil, both autonomous and compulsive, loving and hateful. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, rent this movie straightaway.
None of this excuses Vitter. Maybe, like this guy, he will merely exploit good people's will to believe for his own mercenary ends. If I had to place bets, that's the one I'd cover. But maybe his constituents will reject his testimony—shove his glib "I asked for and received forgiveness from God" right up his ass. Send him out for more sack-cloth and ashes. That's part of the Southern culture of sin and redemption, too.
Indeed, if he indeed takes this deeply Southern culture of sin and redemption to which he falls heir in any way seriously, he'll resign. But he will not then have admitted himself a "hypocrite"—he won't have believed one thing and done another. He will have succumbed to the temptation of evil, the guilt gnawing at him all the while. His redemption could only come through via genuine sacrifice and struggle. Maybe he'd come back as a successful politician. Maybe he wouldn't. But if he did, it's entirely likely that his constituency would bestow upon him more loyalty and affection than before. That's the culture of sin and redemption, too. Once was lost, now I'm found: that's grace. In Christianity, that's a good thing.
But. Either way, the dynamic that unfolds, politically and morally, will be far more complex than that covered by this thin word "hypocrisy." And if he comes back, fair warning: unless he exchanges his Southern Evangelical patrimony for another, he won't suddenly have seen the light in the way us liberals would prefer—he won't recognize himself as a "hypocrite." He won't, as we would prefer, repent of his rather cruel crusade for the "sanctity of marriage." More likely, he'll emerge all the more effective a spokesman for it. For who would know better than someone like him just how fragile the institution of marriage truly is? Who better, indeed, than someone who has fought the devil face to face, and lost?
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