Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mark Sanford's Deepening Hole

Caught by a reporter last week, Jenny Sanford sniped that her husband’s career was the “least of her concerns.” The couple may be at odds with one another right now, but at least they seem to have that one thing in common.

As politicians go, Mark Sanford seems singularly disinterested in continuing his career. Anyone in the “real” world—that is, the world outside the alternate universes of entertainment and politics—would certainly have been invited by this time to clean out his desk and turn in his key. Sanford would do well to heed the advice of a fellow politician, a Brit named Denis Healey, who formulated the First Rule of Holes: “When you’re in one, stop digging.”

In a series of tell-all interviews, Sanford has admitted to enough improprieties and episodes of bad judgment to keep investigative reporters busy for months. From across the country, it appears that his political enemies within the state of South Carolina have so far been remarkably restrained in their comments—but why shouldn’t they be? Why interrupt the man when he’s so busy digging his own grave?

As the country watches this tragi-comic saga unfold, some commentators muse about how a man could be so indiscrete in a state that’s right in the middle of the “Bible belt,” home of the purest ideologues of social conservatism and the religious right.

My question is, where else could it happen? That “old-time religion,” which so many conservatives espouse (or at least flap their lips about), is all about emotion—pure, unadulterated (pardon the pun), raw emotion. There’s nothing rational about it.

According to the Pew Research Center, 33% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true—that every word of it should be taken as historical fact or divine prophesy. Among those affiliated with Evangelical Christian churches, that figure rises to 60%. In South Carolina, where professed Christians comprise 92% of the population, it stands to reason that reason isn’t highly regarded as a decision-making tool, much less a moral compass.

Typically, Christians of the “Bible-is-the-literal-word-of-God” variety solve problems by praying a lot and then waiting for guidance from God, or inspiration—which is to say, they listen to their feelings, conveniently convinced that God will fill them with the right “spirit” and lead them to salvation. Well, the spirit that moved Mark Sanford led him to Buenos Aires—apparently not once but several times.

All this is, of course, embarrassing for the General Opposition Party (GOP), which spent so many years fostering an image of being the standard-bearer for family values. The Republicans had a good run, fueled in part by successfully channeling the emotionalism of Evangelical Christianity and beer-swilling, red-neck American patriotism—that is to say, as John McCain so eloquently put it, by “energizing the base.”

The very public behavior and maudlin suffering of Mark Sanford—not to mention the martyrdom of his wife, which is also getting its share of media attention—give a whole new meaning to the term “base.” Perhaps it’s time for the Republican Party to consider whether populism—relying as it does on the shifting sands of emotional commitment—is the best foundation on which to try to build government.


Sue said...

Come on, Jane, It's really not either fair or appropriate to blame Christianity (or religion in general) for bad personal choices. It's not the belief system that's flawed. All true religions try to teach values to the believers. The fact that a person chooses to act in opposition to those values is a personal choice, not an indictment of the values or of the religion.

The real issue here -- as with several other similar incidents recently -- is whether a person who makes such flawed personal decisions is capable of making appropriate choices in governing.

Of course, one could argue that an individual's personal life is separate from his/her private life. That is true. But when a person in public office chooses to blur the boundaries (and particularly when that blurring includes the use of public resources for private questionable behavior) they give up the right to demand that separation. And when they display bad judgment in one area, voters should question whether they are capable of using better judgment in public areas of their lives. That's not "religion" or "populism," that's common sense.

Idna said...


At the risk of being accused a crazy Christian .... I say AMEN to your post.

Citizen Jane said...

Dear Sue and Idna,

It's not religion per se that I'm talking about--it's religiosity, the pretense of piety. It's fundamentalism in all its guises--Christian, Muslim, or Voodoo. It's the irrational belief that one's feelings are somehow a pipeline to truth and God. It's infantile emotionalism, which can use religion to gain credibility.

I've known deeply spiritual people, both religious and secular. One thing they have in common (as opposed to hypocrites who pretend to be spiritual) is commitment to truth. Another is the notion of self-sacrifice and service to others. Frankly, I find it rather frightening that well-informed people such as you don't seem to distinguish between Christianity in general and the kind of Bible-banging superstitious fundamentalism that I described in this post. Not all beliefs are created equal.

Sue said...

The point is, Jane, religion, religiosity, bible-thumping, or whatever else you want to call it, really doesn't have much to do with this drama. It's not just a case of a man cheating on his wife, lying about it, then admitting to an affair. The point of this incident is that a publicly-elected official abuses power to cheat on his wife, lie about it, and that he uses public funds to achieve it. Whether you have religious or any other moral values, it's the abuse of public position that sticks in this case!

Idna said...

The problem with your argument is that it's a total non sequitur. How do you jump from a single person cheating on his wife to indicting a whole group of people who have different religious and political beliefs than you? What did the Bible believers and Republicans have to do with Sanford's activities?

Makes no sense. Were you this worked up about the Democrats being responsible for Bubba Clinton or Eliot Spitzer cheating on their wives?

Let's get a grip, Jane. As Sue pointed out, Sanford made a personal decision. Do you see the Bible-Belt Churches cheering him on? No? So what is your point?

Citizen Jane said...

The point is that in the conservative movement of the past few years, religion and politics have mixed in a way that is bad for the country, and Mark Sanford is a case in point. In fact, new information is emerging about Sanford's involvement in a secretive, pseudo-religious group that selects high-ranking politicians and promotes "the market" as an infallible tool of God. If that's not a frightening development, I don't know what is.

Phony religion has been a factor in the most heinous mistakes made in this country in recent years. I think we're much too eager to call anyone's ideas legitimate, so long as they're dressed up like religion.

I respect genuine religious conviction and honesty in any form. I respect other people's religious convictions but not social or political movements disguised as religion. I respect religion that is in keeping with reality, including science and history, but not delusional, magical thinking. Extremist fundamentalism falls into the latter category and has done a lot of harm in this nation.

Sue said...

Idna's right, Jane. Your logic is less than stellar in this posting. I think the problem is that you're trying to combine three separate topics that have only the slightest connection -- and that not in anything but that one man may have some connection to each. The first, obviously, is Gov. Sanford's personal failings. The second is how political strategists have capitalized on the relationship between a certain type of conservative Christianity and the so-called "core values" of this country (but that's nothing new; it's been happening at least since the Reagan era), and the third is that some religious groups are straying from their proper domain by promoting beliefs that do not fall within the traditional realms of religion (although that, too, could be argued since it's been happening at least since the Protestant Reformation, if not long before). If you could show that Sanford's behavior was a direct result of the other two, you'd have a case for combining them. But you can't, because they aren't.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Sue!

Thanks so much for your succinct, intelligent summary of the main points I was trying to make. (That's what I love about 46 Degrees North--we don't bore each other by agreeing all the time, but we certainly do communicate.)

You may have a point about three large issues being combined in one post--each could probably be the subject of a book. (Not that anyone would want to read a whole book about Sanford's personal failings.) But my point was not that Sanford's failings RESULT from the exploitation of religious extremism or its use as a political tool--just that there's a relationship.

The Tarquin said...

Overheard in my office a few days ago:

"Ah yes, South Carolina. Did you hear they're trying to pass a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman and another woman in Argentina?"

In all seriousness, though, I personally think that the religious factor is about the least interesting part of this whole debacle. I mean, it should be no news to anyone that religious and non-religious people alike make stupid, selfish, and even evil decisions.

No one religious creed has a monopoly (or even a majority share) on behaving like a near-sighted asshole.

What's more interesting to me is seeing how, despite all our protestations to the contrary, Americans still like a good witch hunt. And while most of us have lost interest in hunting proper witches, we still do enjoy the sport of chasing adulterers and other political undesirables to ground.

The American view on politics is even-keeled most of the time. But give us a scent of scandal and we go on point and charge like bloodhounds. And I don't say any of this to exempt myself by implication, I'm as guilty as anyone. I just think it's fascinating how keen we all are to hunt politicians for slights that weren't committed against us, nor have any bearing on their actual official duties.

Citizen Jane said...

Your point about witch hunts is very well taken, Tarquin. If he weren't doing so much talking about his sex life, I don't think the rest of us should be, either--except for one thing: If he's been using public money for private purposes, THAT should be discussed.