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.