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Bankrupt Morality

Sen. John Ensign’s (R-NV) legislative days are numbered.

The New York Times’ ongoing revelations about Ensign’s extra-marital affair with the wife of his assistant, his parent’s payment of hush money to cover up the affair and, most recently, the cuckold’s attempt to shakedown the Senator and the Senator’s apparently illegal efforts to find his former assistant a new position as a lobbyist point to a deepening crisis. Ensign’s actions seem to have moved a sex scandal from a pathetic comedy to a likely illegal political crime.

Ensign’s further outing is the latest in a new wave of sex scandals involving a growing number of Christian Republican politicians. National headlines were generated over the seamy exploits of Gov. Mark Sanford (SC). These outings are complemented by local exposés like those involving state assemblyman Mike Duvall (R-CA), state senator Paul Stanley (R-TN) and South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. These scandals bespeak the moral hypocrisy Americas have come to expect from holier-then-thou Republic politicians.

Unfortunately, it is getting harder to laugh at such scandals. The social and political climate has changed significantly since the cartoon-like sex scandals of the Bush era. Political discourse has hardened since Obama’s election. We are witnessing the transition from “culture wars” to “class wars.”

* * *

The recent wave of Republican sex scandals symbolizes the moral bankruptcy of the Christian right and the Republican party. With the exception of Duvall, those outed in the current wave of scandal have held onto their elected positions. A truly humane, secular value system would recognize adultery (unless involving rape or abuse of office) as a private matter and would encourage a wayward politician to keep his office, calling instead for mercy, counseling and some act of public contrition. Something far different seems at work among the Christian Republican right.

The right’s tolerance for those outed for violating perhaps its deepest moral edict, preserving the sanctity of marriage and the family, is not surprising. It was earlier manifest in the scandals involving Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and former Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) as well as with Sarah Palin in her vice-presidential run. These were the same high-minded moralists who denounced the behavior of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and Democratic presidential contender John Edwards.

Most striking, Spitzer (who likely violated the 1910 Mann Act by inter-state trafficking in prostitution) fled office and Edwards (who apparently fathered a child in an extra-marital affair) bowed-out of the ’08 Democratic presidential race. However, many Republican worthies hold onto their positions and continue to champion their rightwing causes.

The Christian-Republican right’s apparent tolerance expresses the convergence of two motives. First, it reflects political opportunism, the legacy of the “marriage” between traditionalist Christians and conservative Republics launched by Jerry Falwell in 1979 with the founding of the Moral Majority. Second, it expresses a profound contempt that conservatives have toward the social, cultural and sexual diversity that distinguishes America and American democracy.

For three decades the Republican party, aligned with the white Christian right, fought to turn back the gains of the civil-rights, women’s and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. Abortion, gay rights and free love, let alone interracial sex, evolution, teen sex ed and stem cell research, were denounced as threats to Christian moral order.

With the 2006 Democratic Congressional victories and Obama’s electoral triumph last year, the Christian “culture wars” seemed defeated. But like a vampire rising from the dead, the white Christian right is back, more punitive and vindictive than ever.

Advertisers learned long ago that many Americans have short attention spans and even more limited knowledge of history. Daily life is overwhelming and memory a precious resource. A chorus of rightwing pundits and politicians faults Obama (and the Congressional Democrats) for the mounting economic crisis. Many Americas accept this lament as true.

The failures of Bush-the-lesser, whether the systematic destruction of the domestic economy or ensnaring the nation in two thankless foreign military mis-adventurers, are being presented as not only Obama’s problems but his creation.

The right is concealing its loss of political power and the rejection of its ideological hegemony behind the mounting and widespread sense of personal financial calamity. For them, all efforts to use the state (i.e., public resources) to stabilize capitalism are seen as efforts to undercut the market rather than to save it. These “free market” purists are economic hypocrites.

This is most evident in their orchestrated campaign to defeat Obama’s watered-down health insurance reform effort. It is a campaign camouflaged as rants against “big government,” but backed by the major health-industry players and popularized by corporate-funded astroturf groups. More troubling, it is a campaign driven by far deeper resentments, a rage rooted in an historical loss of class, race and patriarchal privilege.

The current “Great Recession” will likely turn out to be the historical bookend to the ‘30s Great Depression. Overcoming the Depression launched the “American Century”; the current crisis may mark the eclipse of American prosperity. Looking back, it may be a key steppingstone in the emergence of China as the 21st century’s global economic engine.

Over the last three decades, as finance replaced manufacturing as the source of the nation’s economic growth, the standard of living of the average American eroded. America’s finance-driven bubble economy is turning the country into an old-style Latin American banana republic, with ever-greater income disparities, gated communities and a tightening police state.

It seems that a growing number of Americas know (if only in their bones) that the country is at a profound turning point. They realistically sense that there is little chance, nor desire, for a “recovery” like that which marked the recent go-go years following the dot-com bubble of the‘ 90s. They sense that past post-bubble recoveries were but rollercoaster rides that, after all the hype settled, left them worse off. They known that recovery means that income inequality grows, their lives get poorer, their fears mount.

Sadly, the Christian-Republic right is effectively exploiting these fears, fueling the development of a racist, anti-pleasure, neo-fascist movement of rage and resentment.

* * *

Sex scandals serve a social function. They are a form of public shaming intended to discipline sexual experience, to contain acceptable sexuality. America has been a nation of sex scandals since Pocahontas married John Rolfe in 1614.

Presidents including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland, as well as legislators too numerous to name, have been publicly ridiculed for their alleged sexual indiscretions. However, it is with Bill Clinton’s Oval Office dalliances that sex scandal became a political crime, an unstated ground for impeachment.

In January 1992, just weeks before the all-important New Hampshire primary, Star, the gossip tabloid, published an exposé claiming that Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee and cabaret singer, had had a twelve-year affair with the governor, good-old-boy Bill.

Moving quickly to counter the scandalous claim, Clinton, joined by Hillary, appeared later that week on CBS’s “60 Minutes” immediately following the Super Bowl, thus ensuring a huge national audience. The couples’ denial, offered with a sincerity not seen since Nixon’s famous Checkers speech of a half-century earlier, was sufficiently convincing that it helped him defeat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in a three-way race with Ross Perot.

In August ’92, as Clinton, the first sitting president to testify before a grand jury, was about to face impeachment hearings, the Republic party held its national convention.

At the convention, Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s loyal apologist, drew upon the sociologist Robert Davison Hunter’s recently published study of religious politics in America, Culture Wars, to lament before a national TV audience: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” he ranted. “It is a culture war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as the Cold War itself. [It is a] struggle for the soul of America….” Buchanan’s speech formally launched the culture wars.

Many within the right saw Clinton’s victory as illegitimate, an electoral anomaly. Republicans, religious conservatives and other right-wingers started gunning for him from day one of his presidency.

Early in 1994, conservative gossipmongers started spreading stories about Paula Jones, an Arkansas state clerical worker, who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by then-governor Clinton. Many credit the politicalization of the Flowers and Jones scandals with the Republicans winning their ’94 “revolution,” capturing both Houses of Congress.

Nearly two decades have passed since the launch of the culture wars and Clinton’s impeachment. For much of this period, sex scandals involving Republicans and Democrats followed a common pattern. The offender, an ostensibly upstanding public official, was outed by the media for his involvement in an illicit indulgence, be it straight or gay, with a staff member, a lobbyist or a prostitute.

This pattern took shape with Ted Kennedy’s fateful car ride with Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick, MA, on the night of July 18, 1969. Up to then, the sexual exploits of Harding, FDR, JFK and other 20th century political worthies were dutifully suppressed.

The pattern was refined with the sex scandals of the ‘70s that now seem almost comic. They were symbolized by scandals involving congressmen Wilbur Mills and Wayne Hays, and their respective mistresses, Fanne Fox and Elizabeth Ray.

However, the outing of Barney Frank in 1987, who was charged with facilitating his male lover’s gay prostitution ring, led to his formal coming out (his homosexuality was one of the great public secrets of Boston politics) and repeated reelection by an approving constituency. Frank’s outing anticipates the right’s tolerance of Republican miscreants today.

Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, the conventional pattern of ritualized shaming continued. Gary Hart’s tryst with Donna Rice might have cost him the 1998 presidential nomination. Other scandals involved Senators Bob Packwood (R-OR) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) as well as congress-people Ken Calvert (R-CA), Charles Canady (R-FL), Mel Reynolds (D-IL), Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) and Dan Burton (R-IN).

By the mid-00s, this pattern was expressed in the sexual exploits of congressmen Mark Foley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA) as well as that of reverends Paul Crouch and Ted Haggard. It was repeated in the moral shaming of Spitzer and Edwards during ’08 campaign.

Since the ‘70s, Christian moralists imposed a modern form of excommunication, political banishment or expulsion, on politicians caught in illicit sexual encounters. However, over the last few years, the Christian right has adopted a theology and political policy that replaces moral judgment with opportunistic cynicism.

* * *

Why is Ensign still in office? Why did Sarah Palin remain a vice presidential candidate after her daughter’s pre-marital pregnancy was admitted? Why is David Vitter still in the Senate after being outed for soliciting the services of the DC Madam as well as New Orleans prostitutes? Why did Larry Craig serve out his term of office in the shadow of an arrest for a homosexual tearoom encounter with a cop? Why are Newt Gingrich, who had repeated out-of-wedlock affairs, and Bill Bennett, who enjoyed the fetishistic services of a renown Las Vegas dominatrix, still conservative spokesmen? And why is Mark Sanford, who had an adulterous love affair with an Argentinean woman, still governor of South Carolina?

American sexual politics is schizophrenic. Democratic adulterers from Clinton and Hart to Spitzer and Edwards have been either political destroyed or seriously constrained; however, Frank’s outing only exposed the obvious, a public secret his constituency long knew. As evident in the experiences of Vitter, Gingrich and Bennett as well as Sanford and Ensign, and not forgetting Palin, Christian Republicans have emerged effectively unscathed by the traditional shaming rituals associated with political sex scandals. Worse still, they blithely go on championing their rightwing gospel.

The Christian minister Rick Warren, who gave an invocation at Obama’s inauguration, once advised his followers: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.” His words connote the new theology of the Christian right.

Today’s Christian right is opportunist, if not cynical, in its adherence to moral judgment. Once upon a time, Puritans branded an “A” on the foreheads of those accused of adultery and murdered sinners who allegedly had sex with the devil. This value system has changed considerably over the last four centuries. Today, while sex with the devil has disappeared, Christian politicians outed for adultery and other illicit sexual practice are treated as upstanding public citizens.

For the Christian-Republican right, the evil of an illicit deed has been superceded by a call for repentance and forgiveness. This is nothing more than the acceptance of political expedience. Today’s sinners need only praise the lord, admit to their wayward ways and, if the politician serves a useful purpose, all is forgiven. Like stepping reborn out of the purifying waters of baptism, a politician’s redemption means that s/he can go forward as if nothing happened and one’s sin is forgiven.

In a rational, secular world, “forgiveness” would likely be the moral norm for those outed partaking in illicit sexual behavior. To the extent that one has not violated the personal consent of another, be it by rape or abuse, sexual conduct should be a private matter. Like the outing of Frank, private behavior should be transformed from shame to tolerance through public acceptance.

However, for the Christian right, forgiveness has become purely instrumental, serving only to rationalize traditionally unacceptable sexual behavior to serve a political end. One is forgiven to the extent that one is politically useful.

For the Christian right, pre-marital sex is wrong, out-of-wedlock affairs are wrong, solicitation of a prostitute is wrong, having an out-of-wedlock child is wrong and homosexuality is beyond the pale. Nothing systemically has changed in the Christian right’s notion of tolerance. Rather, political expedience makes nearly everything acceptable. Moral hypocrisy has reached a new level of personal deception and public deceit.

DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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