TRC Logo, June 25, 2009

Mark Sanford, George Tiller, and the Politics of Hypocrisy

By Fred Block

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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