The New York Times reported Sunday that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is planning to make a run for New York City Comptroller. The Democratic politician is best known for resigning the governorship in 2009 after confessing that he had paid $15,000 over five months to a high-end prostitution service. Spitzer’s planned political resurgence comes after two other politicians this year announced their return to politics after prominent sex scandals. Former Republican South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who disappeared to Argentina with his mistress for several days in 2011, won a South Carolina House seat in a special election. Former Democratic member of the House of Representatives Anthony Weiner announced a mayoral run in New York City two years after he admitted to sending sexually lewd images to six women over Twitter.
Voters appear to have few qualms about their return to electoral politics. Sanford won the South Carolina special election by nine points. Weiner is considered a frontrunner in the NYC mayoral contest, with at least one poll showing him with a lead in the Democratic primary race. With the recent surge in political turnabouts for sex scandal-rocked politicians, an important question needs to be addressed: How do we, as Christians, react?
The obvious answer is that Christians should offer these disgraced politicians the same forgiveness God would. Wasn’t it standing before a woman taken in adultery that Christ said that only the sinless should cast the first stone? King David was himself an adulterer who repented when punished by the Lord, and was allowed to continue his rule. It’s clear we should not thoughtlessly condemn politicians based on sins they’ve openly repented and promised never to repeat.
However, Christians are called to condemn the sin while forgiving the sinner. There is a strong case to be made that re-electing these politicians serves as a tacit approval of their former actions. No matter what they did during their years in office, Sanford, Weiner, and Spitzer are known first and foremost for their sex scandals, and likely forever will be. When most disgraced politicians are treated like pariahs, but politicians who were in sex scandals are allowed back in the game, the message is clear: breaking your marriage vows just isn’t a big deal.
The need to repudiate these politicians is reinforced by the fact that there is a still strong sentiment among some that adultery by politicians shouldn’t be condemned at all. Take Slate’s Katie Roiphe, who after General David Petraeus’ resignation for having an affair with his biographer complained that media coverage of the scandal “taps into a deeply conservative, 1950s picture of family life that has yet to adapt and evolve with the times… [I]f we are being honest, this is not even a ‘sex scandal.’ This is just sex.” With many who seek to forgive adulterous politicians AND excuse their misdeeds, the need for Christians to firmly state their opposition to adultery is greater.
Christians should also recognize that we can forgive a sin, but still recognize the shockingly bad moral and political judgment it takes for a high-profile politician to engage in an extramarital affair. Contrary to what the Katie Roiphes of the world would have us believe, public disapproval of adultery has actually steadily increased over a half century, to the point that 90 percent of Americans believe adultery is immoral. If we can’t expect a politician to make the right decision on a moral issue the vast majority of Americans seem to find simple, how can we expect him or her to make the right decision on the tough moral issues officeholders face? Just because these politicians reemerge with a newfound respect for monogamy, doesn’t mean we have a guarantee that similar moral lapses won’t be forthcoming.
Christians shouldn’t saddle politicians with a scarlet letter that bars them from the public square forever. Concerns about past sexual misdeeds are just one factor out of many Christians should use to judge a candidate, if still an important one. But also important are concerns about whether their public policy positions are just, wise, and further God’s plan for the nation. We must also not be drawn into the popular idea that “personal issues” should be irrelevant to a person’s suitability for office. It is with good reason that we hold the political representatives of our communities to high moral standards in all facets of their lives. Forgiving a sin does not require downplaying a sin, and in the course of forgiveness we must not minimize the destructive effect marital breakdown has on the soul and society at large.