We are witnessing an epidemic of infidelity among the faithful.
Republican governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford thought he could sneak away unnoticed to meet his lover Maria in Argentina. But his absence was discovered, leading to a "Where's Waldo" frenzy in the news media for nearly one week. Sanford lied to his wife, his staff, his constituents and the media. But this story is now largely buried, eclipsed by the death of Michael Jackson. Given that our society has the attention span of a gnat suffering from dementia, and is taxed at the thought of considering two events at once, the timing of the singer's demise and the ensuing media saturation might prove to Sanford there is a God.
If so, he has a sick sense of humor. His disciples who shout the loudest about family values, the sanctity of marriage and the moral decay of the left seem incapable of keeping their tools in the box and their hands off women to whom they are not married.
For we know that Sanford is not alone among Republicans gone wild. Nevada Senator John Ensign "admitted" to an affair with his aide Cynthia Hampton after he was caught red handed. Can one admit to something after one is caught in the act? In any case, remember that Ensign was vocal in demanding that President Clinton step down from office for his sexual indiscretions. This moral stance did not prevent Ensign from pursuing some side nookie himself, however. He now feels remorse that he "violated the vows" of marriage in diddling someone other than his wife. Do ya think? Even creepier, if that is possible, his lover's husband was a top aide in Ensign's office in the Senate. Ignoring his own advice to Clinton, Ensign does not plan to resign.
So let us review the record of the Party most vocal about moral values. Sen. John McCain had an affair followed by a divorce. Newt Gingrich doubled down with two affairs and two divorces. While Gingrich was allegedly having sex with a woman not his wife, though his national slogan was "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." Yuck. Rudy Giuliani is a proud member of this club with an affair and an ugly divorce, with some hints of odd family ties thrown in. Representative Mark Foley had a fondness for male pages, urging one in particular to "get a ruler and measure it for me." Senator Larry Craig, a vocal opponent of gay marriage, was charged with soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom after playing footsies with an undercover cop. Also having an encounter of the third kind with undercover policemen was Bob Allen, a Republican Congressman in Florida, who was charged with paying the officer in question $20 for the pleasure of performing oral sex. This behavior was in bright contrast to Allen's active sponsorship of anti-gay legislation.
We need not stop with elected officials, but can look about at those public figures who strongly support the Republican Party on the basis of moral values. The venerable Ted Haggard, at the time the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was accused of paying male prostitutes for sex while using crystal meth. This is the man who held weekly meetings with then-president Bush, teaching the Commander-in-Chief that homosexuality is an abomination. Jim Bakker fiddled with Jessica Hahn. Jimmy Swaggart got caught with prostitutes. John Paulk, former leader of the hyper-conservative group Focus on the Family was seen in a gay bar after "shedding" his homosexuality. He first denied being at the bar until photographic evidence contradicted the denial; he then claimed he was at the bar for reasons unrelated to sex. Sex, lies and videotapes. Of course we have a cadre of pedophilic Catholic Priests, too.
With Sanford and Ensign we can be impressed that hypocrisy has reached heights rarely seen. But hypocrisy is in fact not the problem, only a natural consequence of the cynical manipulation of moral values for political gain. One follows the other inevitably. The real problem is that the necessary discussion about moral values in our society has been perverted to the point that no reasonable dialogue is possible among legitimately competing ideas. The Party claiming to represent constituents most concerned with moral issues would make Caligula blush with its sexual excesses, deceit, and false piety. The Party that suffers one gay scandal after the next, mixed among abundant bouts of marital infidelity, stands proudly on the sanctity of marriage. If this is the Party wrapped in the mantle of moral values there is not much room for discussion.
This is the same Party, after all, that invokes moral values to oppose stem cell research, denies a woman's right to choose her own reproductive destiny, and seeks to teach Creationism in our schools. Based on nothing but an appeal to God, this is the Party that wonders if dumping 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year might have an impact.
The appeal to God to promote a political agenda does not work. Republicans are all the proof we need. We need a new way.
That new way requires that we take two critical steps. We must first divorce morality from religion, and then deny any one political party's claim to moral superiority.
The link between morality and religion has been established so firmly over the past 2000 years that any shift to a strictly secular model will strike many as heretical even today, on par with Galileo's transgression so long ago. But morality based on religious teachings has an immediate problem in that the source document has credibility problems. We can demonstrate beyond any doubt the fallibility of religious doctrine from factual errors in the bible. From that, we can demonstrate easily enough the fallibility of religious morality.
For 1600 years the Church defended as indisputable, divine fact the notion that the earth was the immobile center of the universe. We can see why they did so: the bible is unambiguous on this point in multiple passages. But when direct observations and objective truth finally revealed this divine fact to be anything but, the Church suddenly declared that nothing in Scripture actually said the earth was the center of the universe, thereby sweeping 1600 years of violently enforced dogma under the rug. And what a mighty big rug that is! And what a mighty big broom!
Much else has also been swept under that rug. The Bible is wrong about the earth's age, off by more than 4 billion years. The creator apparently slept through Biology 101 because he makes mistakes concerning the biology of camels, snakes and mustard seeds, to name a few.
These points are not raised to denigrate religion but to highlight religion's fallibility. These accumulating factual mistakes must call into question the certainty with which the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations claim the Bible is infallible, since their previous insistence has proven unsubstantiated. These doubts about infallibility apply, too, to the Church's teachings on morality. Why would the Bible's moral proclamations carry any more weight than inaccurate but strongly enforced proclamations on the orbit of the sun?
Only when we remove the false certainly that comes with claiming god is on our side can we truly confront the moral issues and ethical dilemmas that we face in our society. This epidemic of moral failure in the Republican Party is a clear symptom of the disease of intolerance; and such intolerance is an inevitable consequence of an appeal to divine insight. Why compromise when god says you're right?
We cure this disease by adopting a moral code completely divorced from religion. That task is easier than it would first appear. Religious morality has a poor track record; we can do better. The bar has been set fairly low.
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, we can speculate that early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior likely strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. We need to re-discover and appeal to this inner good derived from our biology and evolutionary history rather than to the myth of an invisible man in the sky with magical powers as a sound basis for our moral guidance.
Taking this first step to dissociate morality and religion leads to the next: refuting the arrogant notion that one Party has the ear of god. Republicans might just stop claiming to be the party with the greatest insight into god's intentions if the voting public no longer rewarded appeals to divine bias, which would naturally result if we did not look to god but within ourselves for moral guidance.
We must do something. I'm not sure how many more Republican sex scandals we can handle.