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Republicans, Christians and the All-American Politics of Adultery

The Scarlet Hypocrites

by DAVID ROSEN

Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson recently endorsed Rudy Giuliani’s presidential candidacy. The announcement gained media attention and provoked considerable commentary, but quickly dissipated as Giuliani’s protégé in strong-arm deception, Bernie Kerik, faced a 16-count federal indictment. Today, Robertson’s endorsement has all but evaporated from public discourse, reflecting its inherent meaninglessness.

Robertson’s endorsement of Giuliani drew much attention due to the odd-couple nature of their alignment. It was a political marriage few anticipated and exposes the deeper crisis faced by the Republican Party in the wake of the ongoing debacle of both the Bush administration and the Christian right. Robertson’s endorsement represents a pragmatist’s bet on "who can beat Hillary," thus dropping any pretense to the higher moral calling that, for more than a quarter-century, fueled his opportunistic career.

Most remarkable, the two old-time artful dodgers skillfully sidestepped any mention of abortion and gay rights, issues that for Robertson and the Christian right, let alone the other Republican presidential candidates, have been cornerstone concerns during the last two presidential cycles. Equally surprising, no mention of Giuliani’s adulterous past found its way into their orgy of backslapping political revelry.

The Seventh Commandment states: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." [Exodus 20:14] Nathaniel Hawthorne published "The Scarlet Letter" in 1850. In this classic American gothic tale, the central character, Hester Prynee, gives birth to Pearl, her out-of-wedlock daughter, and refuses to name the father. Set against a grim background of the later-17th century New England witchcraft trials, Hester is found guilty of adultery and forced to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest.

One can only wonder why, as the electoral season gets underway, Giuliani and other Republican worthies are not being forced by their devout Christian supporters to wear Hester Prynee’s scarlet "A"?

* * *

Adultery, marital infidelity and sexual scandal plague the Republican Party and the Christian right. In 2006, the shameful sexual exploits of former Congressmen Mark Foley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA) and the Rev. Ted Haggard as well as the ongoing pedophile scandal rocking the Catholic Church (to say nothing of the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal) contributed significantly to the Democrats’ Congressional victories.

The 2008 election is shaping up to follow inline with 2006. So far, the sexual exploits of Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig as well as Randall L. Tobias (former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development) have been front-page scandals.

Now, "America’s Mayor" faces the unraveling of a well-orchestrated cover-up, an unraveling that can put the final nail in the GOP’s electoral coffin. As reflected in his unquestioning support for Kerik ("America’s Police Chief" who himself had an adulterous affair with publisher Judith Regan), good judgment has never been considered one of Giuliani’s strongest attributes.

As many will recall, in May 2000, Giuliani held an outrageous press conference to publicly announce his intention to divorce his second wife, actress Donna Hanover. Surprised, Hanover held a follow-up press conference in which she declared, "I had hoped that we could keep this marriage together. For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of his relationship with one staff member."

The soon-to-be-former Mrs. Giuliani was referring to Cristyne Lategano-Nicholas, Giuliani’s former communications director. Giuliani and Lategano-Nicholas denied allegations of a sexual liaison. Giuliani is also accused of having an ongoing, if discreet, sexual liaison while married to Hanover with his current wife, Judith Nathan, herself a survivor of two previous marriages. Little of this dubious personal history of a man who could become president finds its way into the mainstream media.

Nor do the questionable sexual and personal relations of other prominent Republicans find coverage in the popular media. Take, for example, John McCain. According to Nicholas Kristof of the "New York Times," in 1979 and while still married, McCain aggressively courted Cindy Hensley, a 25-year-old woman from a well-to-do family. He then divorced his wife, Carol, who had raised their three children while he was a prison-of-war in Vietnam, married Ms. Hensley and launched his political career bankrolled by his new wife’s family money.

Fred Thompson, the former senator turned actor turned presidential aspirant, was assailed by James Dobson, founder of ultra-conservative Focus on the Family, for being "wrong on issues dear to social conservatives." Dobson was offended by Thompson’s opposition to a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. Unstated, but not far from Dobson and other Christian fundamentalist resentment of Thompson, is his trophy bride, his second wife, Jeri Kehn, who he married in 2002; he divorced his first wife, Sarah Lindsay, in 1985.

Then we have those upstanding Christian Republicans and former congressmen, Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich. In "No Retreat, No Surrender," DeLay recounts his early political career in the Texas Legislature and his exploits involving serial adultery.

Gingrich, who led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for his oral tryst with Monica Lewinsky in the White House, is reported to have had adulterous liaisons with Anne Manning, Callista Bisek and an unnamed volunteer. Invoking Clinton’s now-infamous "is" defense, Gingrich claimed that oral sex is not sexual intercourse and thus does not rise to the level of adultery.

Gail Sheehy revealed Gingrich’s 1977 affair with Manning in Washington while he was married to his first wife. ["Vanity Fair," September 1995] However, in 1981 Gingrich divorced his first wife, Jackie Battley, while she was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment; he divorced his second wife, Marianne Ginther, on Mother’s Day 1999, when Gingrich’s long-running affair with Callista Bisek, a congressional aide, was exposed. Seeking absolution, Gingrich confessed his sins to Dobson, who, along with Jerry Falwell, forgave him. No scarlet letters for these worthies.

Moving these affairs from the scandalous to the absurd, DeLay insisted that he was morally superior to Gingrich: "I was no longer committing adultery by that time, the impeachment trial. There’s a big difference." And adds, "Also, I had returned to Christ and repented my sins by that time."

* * *

Adultery is an all-American sin. Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter" was written one-hundred-and-fifty years after the colonial witchcraft trials. Among early New England colonialists, adultery was a capital crime punishable by hanging or being branded with an "A" on the forehead. Other sexual practices denounced as sins included premarital sex, bestiality, masturbation, fornication, incest, rape, polygamy, interracial sex and sodomy as well as temptations like carnality, licentiousness, lust and seduction.

While Hester Prynee suffered public ridicule and the shame of wearing a scarlet "A," early colonial women often met far worse fates. Two women, Elizabeth Seager and Rachel Clinton, were charged with witchcraft and adultery; their lives were spared. However, three women (Alice Lake, Martha Corey and Suzannah Martin) were accused of witchcraft and having illegitimate children; they were executed. And ten other women were accused of having sex with Satan and their individual fates vary.

Since Independence, adultery by leading political figures has been an ongoing scandal. In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson was assailed as a bigamist over the timing of his marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards which occurred before her divorce was legally finalized. After assuming office in 1874, Grover Cleveland was confronted by newspaper reports claiming he had an affair with Mrs. Maria Crofts Halpin, who accused him of fathering her illegitimate 10-year-old son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland. While he never admitted paternity, Cleveland sent child support to Mrs. Halpin.

The prying eye of public notoriety got sharper as the 20th century unfolded. Warren Harding had an affair for fifteen years with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, James Phillips, and Nan Britton, thirty years his junior, with sexual liaisons with her in the White House and with whom he fathered an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Ann. And then there are the extra-marital relations of FDR, Ike, JFK, Clinton and, least we forget, the rumored indiscretions by Bush-the-lesser with Margie Denise Schoedinger and Tammy Phillips.

Estimates range widely as to the current rate of adultery in America. For example, in a 1991 survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center 10 percent of married women reported that they had engaged in extramarital relations; in a 2002 follow-up study, 15 percent of women reported that had engaged in such relations; in both studies, 22 percent reported engaging in such relations. [Newsweek, July 12, 2004]

In a 1997 Ball State University study found that women 18- to 40-years are just as likely to commit adultery as men of comparable age. Reports in "Men’s Health Best Life" (2003) place husband infidelity at one in 20 (5%) and wife infidelity at one in 22 (4.6%); "Oprah" magazine (2004) found that wife infidelity was at 15 percent. However, Joan Atwood and Limor Schwartz, reporting in the "Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy" (2002), estimate that 45-55 percent of married women and 50-60 percent of married men engage in extramarital sex during their marriage.

While popular sexual practice is changing and martial infidelity appears more widespread and more tolerated, twenty-four states still outlawed adultery as of 2004; ten states had anti-fornication statutes prohibiting sex before marriage.

States define adultery differently, the laws vary considerably and prosecution is arbitrary. For some states, adultery involves sexual intercourse outside marriage; for others, it occurs when a married person lives with someone other than his or her spouse. In West Virginia and North Carolina, for example, it involves "lewdly and lasciviously associate" with anyone other than one’s spouse.

Adding more confusion, individual states prosecute adultery differently and punishment also varies. Adultery is a felony in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and Idaho, but a misdemeanor everywhere else. Most states litigate both people involved, but Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah only punish the married person. [Franklin Foer, Slate, June 15, 1997]

However, states rarely enforce adultery laws. The most recent prosecution appears to have taken place in Virginia in 2003-2004. It involved John R. Bushey, Jr., a 66-year-old attorney for Luray, VA, who had an affair with Nellie Mae Hensley, 53-years-old. While Hensley was divorced, Bushey was married and, when the affair ended, the spurned lover complained to the police who brought a misdemeanor adultery charge against him. He accepted 20 hours of community service as punishment.

While we can little expect the religious right to brand an "A" on the forehead of Giuliani, DeLay, Gingrich and other adulterous Republicans, one can only hope that the righteous Christians who support these politicians will raise the issue of adultery as the presidential campaign gets into high gear.

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.