Watching Politics From the Pew: Herman Cain and "Christian" Political Hypocrisy

Each week in Watching Politics From the Pew, Benjamin Bartlett offers a thoughtful Christian perspective on the latest political happenings in the news.

It is pretty awkward watching Herman Cain right now. The man has interesting credentials, is an excellent speaker, and appeals strongly to those who prefer anti-establishment candidates. He has also been married to the same woman for his entire adult life, which is increasingly rare in politics.

But then this happened. I won’t speak to its validity because I don’t know. But I do know that even if the worst things being said about Cain right now are true, he is still on much stronger moral ground than, say, former President Clinton. And if even the best case scenario is true, he has probably lied to us more than once.

So why is it such a big story? Well, the problem is not merely that Cain may have sexually harassed a couple of women over the course of his long career in business, though that is a problem. The larger issue is that his muddled, inconsistent responses communicate duplicity, shame, and a willingness to hide the truth to save his own skin. Whether that is true or not is entirely beside the point. Americans want to trust their leaders, and it is hard to trust a person you know is willing to lie to you.

Our national addiction to creating myths and legends out of our political leaders leads us to some pretty weird places. It would be shocking if Cain were the only candidate for president who had ever had a moral lapse or made a significant ethical mistake. But instead of assuming that all the candidates have these issues in their past, we penalize the candidate who gets caught and reward the candidates who do the best job of hiding it. It’s like we agree to look the other way as long as we can, but bring the hammer down on any leader who forces us to see what we don’t want to see.

What bothers me the most about this, though, is that so many political candidates claim to be Christians. Real Christian leadership ought to be able to confess sin. Real Christian leadership does not claim moral superiority or hide the fact that the sin is always with us. When Paul called himself the worst of sinners, he wasn’t kidding.

Yet people keep hiding because they know what nobody likes to admit: We do not forgive. We do not forget. The American church does not promote wise confession and renewal. It promotes people who seem perfect and penalizes them when they fail.

Sometimes I wonder how different two hundred years of Christian dominance in American politics would look if the church did a better job supporting leaders who display true integrity rather than portraying a false and impossible perfection.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Carol

    I agree with your overall point in this post which was, as usual, well argued. But I must disagree that Cain is on more steady moral ground than Clinton. Ask Gloria Cain if she’s OK with her husband being accused of sexual harassment of 3 former female employees (the latest coming out today).

    Say these charges are true and Cain has a habit of asking female employees up to his hotel room – what happens if one of them had accepted? Would Cain have restrained himself? Highly unlikely. Clinton committed adultery – Cain apparently has not cheated on his wife…..but only because the 3 women he (allegedly) sexually harassed didn’t accept his invitations. Looking upon a women with lustful intent is already adultery, Jesus said.

    Plus, as you’ve rightly pointed out – Cain’s response has been all OVER the place. When asked point blank questions about the allegations – Cain basically breaks out into a sweat and starts stammering and repeating himself. These are not exactly signs of someone telling the truth. However – innocent until proven guilty. If these allegations prove to be true however – then I’d say Cain and Clinton are two sides of the same lustful coin. Both committed adultery in one way or another and both lied about it…..then both lied about lying about it.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Fair points, Carol.

    When I wrote the article, the general feeling was that there may have been harassing suggestions, but there was no evidence of infidelity… in other words, he could just be dumb rather than being an habitual adulteror.

    Even so i think you’re right… I overstated any difference between Clinton and Cain. And frankly, it would be overstatement to say there’s much difference between Clinton and Cain… and me! Sin is present in all our lives and making distinctions often isn’t helpful. But both of them are political leaders whose shame led them to cover up sin, knowing that to admit sin is to take a significant drop in popularity.

    Too, trying to separate the two of them sounds like I’m being political… like it’s ok to get mad at one but that the other should be easily forgiven. I didn’t mean to do that, but it does sorta sound that way. I apologize for that.


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