Unoriginal sins By James A. Morone
Sunday, May 23, 2010
In 1845, America's most famous temperance crusader, John Gough, got caught dead drunk in a bordello. He responded with what would become the fallen Puritan's standard: I've shed "bitter tears of repentance." And besides, my enemies are at the bottom of this.
Scandal has long been an occupational hazard for moralizers. Last week, Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana, was the latest to be snared. Souder, a champion of family values and abstinence education, acknowledged an extramarital affair with an aide, Tracy Meadows Jackson. He quickly announced his resignation and -- following the familiar script -- said he was "ashamed" for having "sinned," and blamed the "poisonous environment of Washington" for his downfall.
Souder joins a long roster of lapsed Republican moralists who rode to power in part by preaching family values: Mark Foley (lewd text messages to House pages), Mark Sanford (mistress in Argentina), John Ensign (payoffs to the family of his former mistress), Larry Craig (wide stance in airport bathroom), House speaker-designate Bob Livingston (garden-variety affair) and the list goes on.
Of course, there are sinners on both sides of the aisle -- few falls from political grace have been quite as spectacular as those of Democrats John Edwards (child with a mistress) and Eliot Spitzer (Client No. 9).
You'd almost think Americans would be ready to concede the obvious -- that we are all imperfect -- and return our politicians' moral lapses to the realm of sad but private affairs. Well, that's not going to happen, and here's why.
Three different moralizing streaks run through American culture and history. The most powerful goes right back to the early Puritan settlers. Their idea was simple: Sinners impoverish themselves, diminish their communities and imperil America itself. President Ronald Reagan put it best, with a snippet mistakenly attributed to Tocqueville: "America is great because she is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
The quote touches the heart of the matter: Lost virtue will lead to national decline. Whenever those fears recur -- and the fears of national decline have rarely been more powerful than they are today -- cries about moral decay proliferate. Lewd leaders become a marker of the terrible state we're in.
Republicans are so often ensnared in career-ending hypocrisies because they have seized with such vigor the sackcloth of the prophet Jeremiah, who warned the sinful Israelites to repent of their wicked ways. While the Puritan jeremiad has a long American legacy, the contemporary version first showed up during the Carter administration. Evangelicals, outraged about Roe v. Wade and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, roared onto the political scene, organized the Moral Majority, helped elect Reagan, basked in his approval ("You can't endorse me," he beamed to a convention of evangelicals in 1980, "but I endorse you") and rightfully shared the credit for the rising Republican dominance. Their continuing influence keeps the party lashed to its Puritan mast. And among the prominent neo-Puritans stood Souder himself.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), in turn, did not soften his judgment when he gave Souder the shove. His office said simply that Boehner holds party members to "the highest ethical standards."
A second moral tradition makes things still worse for our falling preachers by idealizing the leader who enters politics to do the right thing. The eternal model is George Washington, reluctantly accepting his duty to be commander of the Continental Army and then president of the new republic. Jimmy Stewart played the role a century and a half later in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Early Americans contrasted their leaders with the courtiers and aristocrats of the corrupted European monarchies. Today, the "tea party," for all its contradictions, taps right into this venerable way of thinking. The routing of incumbents in last week's primaries reverberates with the old contempt toward decadent political establishments.
As we keep hearing, government has lost touch with basic, popular virtues. Of course, the image of a frugal, honest, sober citizenry may stretch the facts, but in frightening times, the old myths take on new power.
For now, conservatives have seized on these two great moral traditions -- the Puritan and the republican. Meanwhile, there is an eerie silence on the left. Liberals no longer seem to relish the Puritans' fall. Perhaps that's because Democrats have lost touch with their own inner Jeremiahs.
What they are missing is a third moral vision that once defined American liberals -- the social gospel. A long line of reformers directed their moral rage at poverty, hunger, racism, segregation, sexism or other forms of injustice, turning the focus from individual sinners to communal wrongs.
Martin Luther King Jr. described the social gospel beautifully when he called on his listeners to become good Samaritans, to forget their selfish desires and to care for needy people of every race. King stood squarely in an American tradition of reformers stretching from William Jennings Bryan ("You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold") to Franklin Roosevelt ("These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is . . . to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men") and Lyndon Johnson ("Should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be [racially] unequal . . . then we will have failed as a people and as a nation"). From this perspective, political morality means worrying less about teen sex and more about ministering to our neighbors.
Two generations ago, Democrats tirelessly reminded the rich and powerful about their obligations to community, nation and planet. That would seem the perfect stance for our own "dark days." In this view, the big American problems -- King might have called them sins -- are not delinquent kids, single moms, drug abusers, illegal immigrants or errant members of Congress but disparities in health, education, wealth, wages and justice.
Today, the social gospel sounds like a quaint echo from the distant past. That's because there are so few leaders willing to stand up and articulate it. That failure diminishes our politics -- and the way the political parties fight their fights. Mark Souder was quite right to blame "the poisonous environment of Washington." Perhaps our hardball politics hastened his departure. But partisanship is nothing new. Nor is moralizing, or moralizers brought low by the very sins they preached against.
This time, however, the crude end of Souder's career barely made a stir beyond the Beltway. The emptiness in the sad spectacle suggests a deeper loss than the crash of another earnest conservative.
Conservatives find it hard to live up to their moral code; liberals find it hard to locate theirs. The tit for tat "gotcha" of sinning politicians is a poor alternative to a robust debate between visions of a good -- and moral -- American society.
James A. Morone, chairman of the political science department at Brown University, is the author of "Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History."