Haggard, Foley and GOP Preaching Against the Very Vices they Can't Shake

11/03/2006 11:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the latest sign of rank hypocrisy among social conservatives, the
president of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals
has resigned amidst accusations that he had a relationship with a male
prostitute. Ted Haggard, who is married with five children, is a frequent
adviser to the White House, and a staunch advocate of banning marriage
rights for gays and lesbians.

The news, of course, comes just a month after Florida GOP Congressman,
Mark Foley, who had pushed legislation to protect youth from "exploitation
by adults using the internet," was revealed to be an internet sexual
predator. And it adds to the sense among weary voters that their leaders,
especially if they happen to be Republicans, cannot be trusted to do the
right thing. Indeed, the chairman of the National Republican
Congressional Committee acknowledged he had been aware of Foley's
inappropriate emails for months, but took no steps to protect the children
who were in harm's way. Instead, he spearheaded a series of TV ads
attacking a Democratic challenger for, yes, being soft on child molesters.

What are we to make of a reigning conservative regime that lists the
following inglorious claims to fame: Strom Thurmond, a notoriously racist
senator who turned out to have a black lover; a Republican indictment of
President Clinton's sexual license headed up by a team of philanderers; a
Congress full of divorces passing an anti-gay law known as the "Defense of
Marriage Act"? In the pundit corner, we recently saw three giants of
conservative moralizing unmasked as incapable of restraining their own
vices: William Bennett turned out to be addicted to gambling, Rush
Limbaugh to drugs.
Meanwhile, Ralph Reed, the hand-picked youthful leader of the religious
right, was quietly helping the corrupt lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, enable
everything that religious conservatives oppose: casinos on Indian
reservations and compelled abortions and sex slavery in the Northern
Mariana Islands, an American territory. And this is not even to mention
the Catholic Church's strident indictment of sexual freedom as it shuffled
its own cadre of child-molesting priests from parish to parish.

The cover-ups and power grabs, of course, are simply raw politics. But
the pattern here may reveal something more striking than the obvious
reality that those in power will sacrifice almost anything to stay there.
The Republican Party appears to be chock full of people who make a life of
preaching against the very vices they can't shake. Why?

For answers to the puzzles that seem to infest the conservative worldview,
we might dust off our old Freud texts. From the father of psychoanalysis,
we learn the concept of "reaction formation" which describes how we react
to our own unacceptable impulses. Reaction formation is a classic
"defense mechanism"-an unconscious behavior designed to ward off
uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes we react to our discomfort with
ourselves in harmless ways, such as when a man cheats on his wife and
brings her flowers to ease his guilt. Other times, the reactions can be
punitive-we judge and condemn others who exhibit the very impulses that
we, ourselves, cannot control. This is frequently the case when dealing
with lust or greed. "Sooner or later," writes Michael Warner, a Professor
of English at Rutgers and a leading theorist of sexuality and politics,
"we all lose control over our sex life. As a result, we try to control
someone else's sex life."

Reaction formation is one of the few explanations that help us make sense
of all the hypocritical moralizing: the preachers are preaching to

What is the solution to this misplaced effort to restrict others'
behavior? For Freud, it was therapy. But more broadly, it's a dose of
introspection, an ability to look inward, and to shift focus from others'
behavior to our own. If hypocrisy in American political life is, in part,
a symptom of inadequate introspection, if our fear that we can't control
ourselves leads to an unconscious effort to control others, we'll continue
to reach for a magnifying glass when what we really need is a mirror.

Republicans have no monopoly on hypocrisy. Most of us are guilty, at one
time or another, of vocally denouncing something we ourselves have done,
of shifting focus away from our own foibles by hoisting them onto others.
But a Party with a peculiar penchant for condemning in others what they
can't overcome in themselves is a Party resting on shaky ground,
especially if it professes self-control as a cornerstone of its governing
philosophy. Social conservatives must be called on their hypocrisy, not
simply as a matter of justice, but so that Americans can fully understand
the roots and impact of the politics of moral judgment. Virtue, it's
true, is necessary to a healthy democracy; but it begins inside.