It’s a long and ignominious list. First there was Newt Gingrich. Then came Mark Foley, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Chip Pickering and Vito Fossella. Most recently there was John Ensign and Mark Sanford.
Politically, sex scandals are equal opportunity destroyers. For every David Vitter, there is an Eliot Spitzer. For every John Ensign there’s a John Edwards. For every Bill Clinton there’s…well, there’s only one Slick Willie. But you get the point: sexual scandal knows no party.
Yet, a common denominator linking many political sex scandals of the last few years is the involvement of conservative Christian politicians, men who, it seemed, had made sexual responsibility and marital fidelity cornerstones of their public and private lives.
But these figures aren’t alone. They reflect a broader reality among many conservative Christians struggling to live up to the moral standards they espouse.
Consider Jon and Kate Gosselin, stars of Jon and Kate Plus Eight, the immensely popular reality show that was once a favorite of evangelicals. Jon and Kate are evangelical Christians who raised their eight children on a combination of Christian discipline and wholesome family values.
But the couple has spent the last year deflecting accusations of infidelity and parental neglect. Jon and Kate separated in June, and the tabloids are documenting the octoparents’ pitiful descent into debauchery. The public is left wondering who’s looking after the couple’s five-year-old sextuplets and twin girls.
Meanwhile Reverend Alberto Cutie, a Roman Catholic priest famous as a commentator on Spanish language television, recently left the church after tabloids revealed that he was having an affair.
The Cutie scandal came in the wake of thousands of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Numerous evangelical pastors have also resigned after scandals involving allegations of sexual misconduct, from prostitution to statutory rape.
Not surprisingly, many of the faithful are falling short too. While practicing Christians and political conservatives rightly warn of the perils of same-sex unions, it is in their own hands that the institution of marriage has been in free fall.
In a 2008 study, The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found that the divorce rate among evangelical Christians was 32 percent, statistically identical to the 33 percent figure among non-evangelical American adults.
Political conservatives end their marriages at a higher rate than the general population. The U.S. Census Bureau has found that the highest divorce rates are in the Bible belt. And in 2007, “The State of Our Unions” report by the National Marriage Project (NMP) at Rutgers University concluded that red-staters “are likely to be more religiously observant and to belong to denominations that profess allegiance to more conservative social values” but also are more likely to divorce than those from blue states.
In a related problem, NMP found that red states tend to have higher out-of-wedlock birth rates than the blue states. For instance, While 37% of all births in the U.S. were out-of-wedlock in 2005, the unwed birth percentages for the red states of Mississippi (49%) and Louisiana (48%) were far ahead of those in the blue states of New Hampshire (27%) and Minnesota (30%).
And new research suggests that religious Americans might be just as likely as secular Americans to abort their unborn children. A June study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association, found that female students at private, religious high schools and colleges are more likely than their secular school counterparts to have abortions.
Some commentators may be tempted to interpret these data as proof that Christians no longer care about maintaining high standards of moral conduct. But poll after poll shows that the protection and promotion of marriage and unborn life remain top concerns for Christians, both in their politics and in their personal lives.
These studies and anecdotes prove only that Christians are subject to the same temptations and moral weakness inherent in us all. The sad stories of Governor Sanford and Jon and Kate reveal how challenging it has become for the faithful to insulate themselves from a society coarsened by tabloid values. These data affirm the difficulty in following Jesus’ admonition to be in the world but not of it.
Religious conservatives have become a consequential force over the last few years by engaging in politics to defend the values of sexual restraint, marital fidelity and respect for human life. That’s a good thing. But to win the culture war, their passion to defend these values in public policy must be matched by an equal amount of passion to live them in their own lives.