In American Politics, the last two weeks did not go well for the institution of marriage. No, a court did not rule to create homosexual marriage, nor did any state pass a similar law. Instead, two heterosexual men—South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign—revealed their participation in adulterous relationships. While neither man left his political office, both quickly resigned their leadership positions within the Republican Governors’ Association and the United States Senate.
Infidelity is nothing new or even rare these days, especially among political leaders. This truth is a sad one. We should understand both why it is a truth and why it is sad.
Why does adultery occur so often among our politicians? A full answer could consume volumes. However, several general observations are useful. I recall this issue coming up with a friend who once served as an intern in Washington, DC. She said she understood why young staffers often fell “in love” with their congressmen. These men were mature while boys her age were, well, boys. Congressmen were often intelligent and intellectual, while younger men were often not. Most of all, these men confidently wielded enormous power that young men did not have. The maturity, intellect, confidence, power, all of these make politicians attractive to their young staffers.
Our politicians themselves often love power. Accumulated to serve the public, such power can easily become grossly self-serving. Power then quickly acts to satiate its own desires for money, fame, and sex. Thus when these political leaders, so used to wielding power for their own gain, meet young, attractive, intelligent staffers infatuated with them, the results are both predictable and ugly.
Next, we must discuss why infidelity among our leaders is a problem worth addressing. After all, we are the same nation that found Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky to be none of our business; it was his private life and, after all, the economy was doing well.
Our lack of concern for politicians’ affairs stems from dividing their character into public and private. It is not just that they have private lives with their family and friends; they certainly do. Instead, they possess character traits—virtues and vices—that are definitively relegated to either the man as politician or the man as private citizen. Thus a man may be a magnanimous leader and personal profligate.
This dichotomy between private and public character is ultimately false. Men do not wear virtues and vices like so many garments. Neither do they morph into one man when entering the door of their office and another when entering the door of their home. A man is a man, the same person in both places, filled with the same passions, thoughts, and commitments. The good he exhibits in the home will find similar manifestation as a public servant. Likewise, those evils which consume his thoughts and actions in private often will publicly come to light.
Does this mean our politicians must be angels? Must they be perfect or be cast aside? Of course not. Yet when their lives shine light on their character (not private or public, but their character simply), we as a discerning public should take note.
In adultery we should particularly take note. For the nature of marriage makes adultery among our political leaders especially problematic. Marriage at its core is a covenant, a solemn and holy compact between husband and wife to love, protect, and cherish each other faithfully.
Our own understanding of government is deeply rooted in the covenantal concept. The Reformation up to the New England Puritans saw government as a covenant between God, the magistrate and the people. Modern Social Contract theory flowed from this train of thought, maintaining the concept of a compact between the ruler and the ruled. In our regime this commitment holds similarities to marriage. A magistrate possesses a solemn and sacred trust (notice how Presidents and many other leaders add “So help me God” to their oaths of office). He pledges to protect the people, to care for their welfare and safety. He must do so faithfully, upholding the Constitution. To act otherwise is treason; it is to be unfaithful, to violate the promise with the ones he has covenanted to serve; it is, in its own way, adultery.
Thus the manner in which a politician treats his or her spouse tells us much about how he or she understands covenant faithfulness, including between a leader and the people. The actions of Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford should cast serious doubt on their fitness to lead. Does that mean no adulterer, past or present, can ever occupy public office? No. There is always a place for penitence, forgiveness, and restoration, both in marriage and in politics. Yet as we choose our leaders, let us seek out those who, in spite of the great temptations of power, choose faithful servant-hood over faithless self-service. Such choices will prove better for our country and our marriages.