04/02/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

Charles Keating's Political Heirs: On Moralizers and Money in Politics

How sadly fitting that news of Charles Keating's death arrives on the same day the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court -- aka the Corporate Court -- continued its gutting of campaign finance laws.

If Keating's name rings a faint bell in your memory, it's probably because of his association with the Savings & Loan scandal of the 1980s. But Keating first made a splash -- and many of his political friends -- as a crusader for "decency" and "morality."

Keating spent decades engaged in a personal war against pornography and freedom of expression. President Nixon appointed him to The President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, and when that commission called for an end to laws against consenting adults obtaining pornography, Keating led the dissenters, whose report was written with the help of Pat Buchanan. He spent the 1970s waging a crusade in Cincinnati, seeking to shut down film and theater productions that violated his sense of "decency." He inspired campaigns against bookstores and libraries. Not surprisingly, he was a zealous homophobe: "Homosexuals should be prosecuted and put in jail."

All of which earned Keating the nickname, "Mr. Clean."

Which brings us to the point of this reflection about the warped way in which "morality" is often talked about in public life: Charles Keating was a man who defined himself as a champion of what he called decency when it came to depictions of sex. But as a businessman he led a profoundly irresponsible and immoral scheme that robbed thousands of people of their life savings and plans they had for their retirement years.

You can read more about his financial misdeeds in the New York Times obituary, but the bottom line is this: Keating and his cronies took advantage of financial deregulation to turn Lincoln Savings & Loan into a monstrous machine for milking customers, and ultimately taxpayers, out of vast sums of money.

It's not that their brazen activities didn't raise red flags -- regulators had them in their sights. But Keating shared his wealth through campaign contributions, and five U.S. Senators -- who became infamous as the "Keating Five"-- weighed in and helped Keating get federal regulators to back off. Before it all fell apart a couple of years later, many more people were bilked. "Asked once whether his payments to politicians had worked," the Times reports, "he told reporters, 'I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.'" Hello, Chief Justice Roberts!

Today, Keating's spiritual and political descendants include right-wing politicians, religious right groups, and political activists who pronounce themselves defenders of decency, morality, and family values, who rail against marriage equality and depictions of LGBT people in popular culture, all while supporting policies that yank the safety net out from under desperate families (see Paul Ryan's new budget).

They, the defenders of all that is good and decent, abuse their political power to make voting harder for millions of people. They want to destroy the federal government's capacity to protect workers, communities and the environment by dismantling the regulatory structure. But those things don't make them immoral. No, they reserve that designation for the growing majority of people who support equality under the law for LGBT people, who want to allow loving same-sex couples to protect their families and children by getting married.

I guess it depends how you define decency.