COLUMBIA, South Carolina – The aftermath of an affair is always more interesting than the actual affair itself. That’s because while the act of shagging a mistress (or master) may be exciting for the perpetrator, it usually is less titillating for the observer (even with a sex tape.)
It is for this observer, anyway. I may want to know the sordid details of the affair, but it is the emotional detritus rather than the actual strokes that draws me in. Show me the pain, baby, show me the pain.
For instance, while I may find it mildly amusing that Elliott Spitzer kept his socks on during sex with his call girl, that little fact is filed away in my mind under Miscellany rather than Need to Know, which is more likely to contain remarks from his press conference, or comments from deceived aides or his wife and friends.
These are the compelling insights that add color to an otherwise banal and commonplace act, and perspective to a situation that has been repeated a million times through the ages by powerful men and women. Indeed, without the imprint of squalid details that sweep up the “innocent,” without the unwitting (or intended) suffering caused by unusually selfish behavior, who cares?
The case of Mark Sanford provides all of this grist and more, to be sure, but it also has the added element of a kind of cultural faceoff between the right and the left, Christians and agnostics, conservatives and liberals, or however you want to frame it. The reason for this, I believe, is Sanford himself; specifically, the ad nauseam manner in which he has confessed his “sins” to the world. Rarely has a politician felt such a need to explain personal actions that have little to do with his official duties.
An editorial in today’s Christian Science Monitor provides a perfect example of the aftermath dynamic in play. It is titled Why the Left Misjudges GOP Sex Scandals, and perfectly codifies the main response from, one would presume, the right to the claim by the left that Sanford and all like him are hypocrites.
“When a Republican affair is exposed, the left seems to assume that the religious right, with the exacting moral standards it tends to laud, will have one less general leading its “pro family” brigade,” the editorial says. “But practice shows us otherwise. While for Democrats, adultery often leads to ruined or constrained careers – think Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards – Republican adulterers from Newt Gingrich to David Vitter have lived to see another political day, still championing their hard-line conservative positions.”
Their survival, it is claimed, is not in spite of the party’s evangelical base, but rather because of it.
“While liberals tend to see continued support as hypocrisy from both the politician and his supporters, what matters to conservative Republicans is not so much the behavior of their leaders as the repentance they show after their fall from grace.”
Sanford, the writers recall, spent most of his time during the post-revelation press conferences, talking not about politics but his faith. “At times he sounded like a preacher expounding on the nature of God’s law, of self, and of sin.”
The writers are making two main points. One, don’t count Sanford out, politically, and two, “Understanding the role of redemption for the religious right isn’t just a matter of getting the theology right. It is the only way for the left to realistically read the political landscape. Because for evangelical conservatives, the point isn’t the fall. It’s how the politician gets back up.”
These are points well worth considering and taking seriously, but they probably will not go far in appeasing the hypocrisy-accusers, especially in Sanford’s case. Though obviously in the grip of a passion he could not control, the man was audacious in his lies to his wife, family and staff, time and time again.
So, while it may be true that the man is not exactly a hypocrite, in that he continues to believe in behavior he is unable to achieve, serious questions about his character remain, and those on the right should think twice before they continue to maintain this “we never claimed we were perfect” line.
It sounds suspiciously as if you are trying to avoid ultimate responsibility for your actions, and that your faith is in danger of becoming little more than a ready fall-back position whenever the devil rears his ugly head.
As the Church Lady would say, “How convenient!”