Character in Public Life

Michael Gerson took to the Washington Post this morning to write on the recent resignation of General Petraeus from the CIA, while Gerson acknowledged the failing of marital infidelity he explored why his legacy should still be viewed as mostly positive. Richard Cohen also an op-ed writer for the Washington Post was more brazen in his assessment writing, “This thing with sex, this American obsession and its concurrent hypocrisy, has gone far enough.” Adding, “He betrayed her, not his country. No more need be said. Now get back to work.” Cohen rightly noted that sex scandals in Washington aren’t new in fact they are as old as the founding fathers themselves with Thomas Jefferson having numerous dalliances throughout his life.

It’s interesting what lengths both sides of the spectrum will now go to explain or dismiss character. Progressives want to downplay the role and importance of sex and sexuality. After all it’s only a part of human nature and limiting that nature isn’t part of the sort of the new/ more just society that needs to be created. Conservatives too play hard and lose with sex. Using it as a tool to describe the infidelities of the other party, but suddenly becoming more understanding and forgiving when it involves one of their members. All of the sudden moral standards become well he’s only human and all great leaders have their vices. It’s as if character in America is now reduced to political expediency and policy priorities. Your view on the latest scandal more shaped by how it impacts your tribe than any sort of common standard for moral character.

Christians too can get caught up with this sort of back and forth. Since we ourselves are prone to sin we too can dismiss the importance of sexual infidelity. The problem is Christians believe that sexual sin and immorality is an indicator of much more. At the very least we can say that the person prone to sexual infidelity is adrift and unsettled. I think especially for men it is a form of fantasy escape from the real commitments and responsibilities of life. It is also a sign that your relationship with your spouse has grown cold. You no longer rely on her as your partner and emotional companion. A person caught in sexual infidelity is unsure of who to entrust their deepest emotional fulfillment too. Suddenly some stranger becomes more attractive of a possibility than a spouse of 20 to 30 years of commitment. This sort of action shows a real disconnect from a person’s character and their work in public life. It’s why scandal is seen as much more than some sexual act. If we could divorce sexual acts from the rest of our lives than maybe we could say, well it’s just something they did, but when sexual acts and infidelity are tied into and impact the actions of the rest of your life than you begin to understand why character is so essential in any position of authority. It’s the abuse of that character, which begins to leave the world wondering if such character even matters.

When we as Christians begin to lose our shock at the moral decline of our political leaders than we too have bought into the notion that these things don’t really matter in public and they might not even matter in our own lives. People are influenced by popular expectations when it comes to morality. When the church fails to highlight expectations in public life it’s not shocking that the state of our culture continues to go adrift and that questions of character and moral fiber begin to lose their place in public life.

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