Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Public Responsibility, Private Vice

I was interested in the "survey" of "religious thinkers" at the on-line On Faith forum at Washington Post/Newsweek online:
From Clinton to Craig, from Swaggart to Paulk, America seems obsessed with sex scandals. Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?

Those consulted range from a Jesuit scholar through Arun Ghandi to Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, President of Chicago Theological Seminary, and a former New Testament professor at my seminary alma mater (she was gone before I attended, but I have always been proud she was affiliated, for a short time, with Wesley). What I find interesting is that no one challenged the first part of the question. Are Americans obsessed with sex scandals? Or is the the press who is obsessed with sex scandals?

In the past year we have had a series of them, most involving Republicans or their supporters, and all but two involving the acting out of same-sex desire by those who have made careers out of denouncing such behavior. The two exceptions were the pedophilia of Mark Foley and Sen. David Vitter of Lousiana and his trysts with prostitutes. To my mind, none of these are "scandals", nor are they primarily about sex. Rather, they are instances of persons caught being human beings, full of foibles and weaknesses - and acting in ways contrary to repeated statements concerning what they consider proper moral conduct. It isn't the betrayal of trust, public or private; it is the obviously hypocritical nature of their acts that attracts. These are moments of schadenfreude that should force us to think about what passes for moral demands among a sector of the public. Instead, we keep hearing about "sex". The "sex" involved, for the most part, is uninteresting. The revelations of same-sex desire, hidden under a mountain of words and actions that would seem to make it not just a crime but a moral disaster reveal how small the "sex" really is.

All of this, to me, shows the issue isn't sex at all. It is the farce that is so much of our public discussion of morality. It isn't just that so many of the voices of "traditional moral values" are a bunch of closet queens who might have benefited from coming out and living their lives with integrity. It isn't just the private pain of marriage vows betrayed and families broken. It is the fact that the pretense of morality is still considered a necessary part of our public discussion, rather than incidental to it.

People, whether publicly well known or not, engage in all sorts of things that are questionable at times (yes, I am including myself in this, and no, I won't tell you what that is). By insisting that we include private behavior in our judgments of the moral worthiness of public figures, we invite the kinds of revelations we have had over the past year precisely because these become, by the nature of the process, part of what determines the moral fitness of individuals for positions of public trust.

Personally, I think issues of personal vice are neither here nor there when determining how fit one is for public office. Most of those who have held positions of power and authority, in most societies, most of the time, have been scalawags and rakes. Some have been out and out psychopaths. Yet some of these same scalawags, rakes, and psychopaths have been among the most effective leaders in history. There is simply no correlation between public virtue and vice and its private sibling.

A good political theology would not include private vice among the categories for consideration. Whether a politician can keep his or her pants (or dress) zippered is not important. This is where I disagree with Thistlethwaite, whose feminist perspective informs her response; the truth is, the abuse of power at the personal level, while indeed an evil, should not inform our public discourse, because it ends up echoing the silly, and wrong, notion that an individual who betrays his or her private trust will also betray his or her public trusts. That is emphatically not the case. Bill Clinton, FDR, and others may have been cads, but that doesn't reflect in their political lives. Indeed, Thistlethwaite's discussion of Clinton's indiscretion is indiscernible from a right-wingers precisely because she buys the idea that private vice is the same as public vice.

We should begin with the proposition that we are considering public figures for a public role. We are not considering people for sainthood, or even for icon of our national morality. Does the person have a view of public life and policy that is in the best interests of the whole polis? That is the question. Does this person enjoy occasional extra-marital coitus, on the other hand, may be of interest to the Church Ladies among us, but is neither here nor there. The idea that "the private is public" is the logical conclusion to "the personal is political", neither of which are sound principles, whether one is Christian, feminist, or other.

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