The Christian view of love is . . . cold?

cold-heat-heavy-funk-rarities-1968-1974-vol-1When I was criticizing that awful Washington Post piece about how morally confounding Mark Sanford’s love life is, it just seemed odd to me that no media outlet has really explained the Christian view of love. For being a country that is majority Christian, it’s shocking how little we read about some of the basic tenets of the theology.

Anyway, no sooner had I hit publish on that last post when I came across an Associated Press story (“For born-again Sanford, love is more than a feeling“) that explains what it calls the “born-again, evangelical Christian” approach to love. You might also recognize it as the Catholic approach to love. And the Orthodox approach to love. And the Lutheran approach to love. And so on and so forth. But I digress.

Here’s the beginning by reporter Allen Breed:

In one especially soul-baring e-mail to his Argentine mistress, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford quoted from 1 Corinthians 13 about the nature of love.

It is patient and kind, he wrote. It is NOT jealous or boastful.

The Christian counselors Sanford sought out while trying to decide whether to stay with his wife or jump on a plane to South America advised him what else love is and isn’t.

“Their point is that love is not a feeling,” Sanford told the Associated Press in a tearful two-day confessional. “It’s a choice. It’s an action.”

That sentiment might seem cold to many Americans, but it is perfectly consistent with the born-again, evangelical Christian world that Sanford inhabits, says sociologist John Bartowski.

Maybe it’s because I’m in a marriage and have contemplated marriage a bit, but I can’t help but laugh that this sentiment might seem cold. To me, cold is cheating on your wife with an Argentine bombshell because you feel like it. Cold is messing up your sons’ view of marriage, romance and love through your narcissism and lack of foresight. Cold is breaking the heart of your wife and partner. Cold is telling the world that you so callously disregarded your marital vows that you somehow managed to pick up a “soul mate” who lives 5,000 miles away. Dios mio! But believing that love is demonstrated through your behavior? That doesn’t seem particularly cold to me.

I think what people are missing about this view is that the head is much more an agent of romance as are the heart and, uh, other body parts. Sanford used his brain to make love choices in recent years — he could have just as easily used that same brain to make different love choices. This isn’t cold so much as reality.

The story goes on to quote someone saying that evangelicals are “carving out a subcultural view of love” that is not so highly romanticized as we see in movies. I think that the source might be confused about whether the Christian view of love predates the chick flick or not, but that’s his fault more than the reporter’s:

That worldview, [Bartowski] says, “divorces” love from emotion, because “feelings are fleeting and not to be trusted.”

“Love is something that is cultivated in the trenches of living a day-to-day relationship,” says Bartowski. “That is not a Hallmark moment.”

Still, it would be nice to have at least one source argue for the romance inherent in the Christian view of love. Let’s go back to that 1 Corinthians quote that began the piece. It’s considered romantic, being used at so many weddings as to be predictable. Here’s a relevant portion:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

It may be impossible for marriage partners to achieve, but it’s certainly not something I’d describe as cold.

The article quotes a number of evangelicals all reinforcing the idea that love is demonstrated through actions rather than experienced via ephemeral emotions. There’s a lot missing about what that means, though. For instance, the Christian view is that love is not self-serving (see Corinthians, above). Love is directed at something. It’s how you get to take care of others. You love your children by feeding, clothing and taking care of them when they’re sick. It can be viewed as drudgery or a great blessing. You love your spouse by meeting their sexual, emotional and physical needs. Again, it can be viewed as drudgery or a great honor. Lutherans refer to the estate of marriage in vocational terms. I would have loved to see this idea, as described here by Gene Edward Veith, included in the article:

The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbor. God does not need our good works, commented Luther, but our neighbor does. In our vocations we encounter specific neighbors whom we are to love and serve through the work of that calling. Husbands and wives are to love and serve each other; parents love and serve their kids; office and factory workers love and serve their customers; rulers love and serve their subjects; pastors and congregations are to love and serve each other. And God is in it all.

Of course, we also sin in vocation — insisting on being served rather than serving; loving ourselves rather than our neighbors; misusing the gifts and the calling God Himself has given us — we come to Him on Sunday mornings in repentance, hearing God’s Word, being built up in our faith. Whereupon God sends us back into our callings, with all of their trials and tribulations, for that faith to bear fruit in love, service, and sanctification.

The competing vision is of love as a feeling that is its own judge. The heart reigns above all. But who, really, is being served in such an emotion-based scenario other than Sanford? The AP article really hammers home this idea that the Christian view of love is about duty, drudgery and coldness. That’s a deeply flawed take on the Christian view — one that reinforces Sanford’s views as expressed in his rambling press conferences and bizarre interviews.

I salute Breed for tackling this story, though. And I’m honestly unsure who is to blame for the story’s flaws. Is it him for his “Evangelicals in the Mist” approach and his use of a narrow range of sources? Or is it the inadequacy of the sources themselves?

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Devout goose, meet devout gander

ChildPornStingThe Associated Press report is very, very, very short and raises many more questions than it answers. Here is a typical version (or click here for a longer version in the Los Angeles Times):

WASHINGTON – Authorities have arrested and charged a Duke University official who they say offered his adopted 5-year-old son for sex.

The FBI’s Washington field office said the school’s associate director of the Center for Health Policy, Frank Lombard, was caught in an Internet sting. Authorities said that Lombard tried to persuade a person — whom he did not know was a police officer — to travel to North Carolina to have sex with Lombard’s child.

Court documents charge that Lombard identified himself online as “perv dad for fun.”

The papers also say an unnamed informant, facing charges in his own child sex case, tipped off authorities to Lombard’s activities.

Sadly, in this Culture Wars age, whenever the mainstream coverage is shallow — try to find coverage of any substance (here’s one short report) in North Carolina newspapers — a story as dark and disgusting as this one is going to leap right over the world of journalism and into advocacy media. In some cases, these op-ed style pieces have raised some valid questions. In many more cases they have added fire and heat, rather than light.

Yes, Lombard is openly gay, living with his partner and their two adopted sons. Yes, his job at Duke focuses on medical issues linked to HIV/AIDS in the rural South. Yes, the details in the affadavit in support of the arrest warrant are absolutely hellish. Yes, there are people in mainstream newsrooms who are asking questions about this case and, sooner or later, the answers to those questions may actually make it into balanced, responsible news coverage.

But let me be clear on one thing, concerning the screams about this story out on the online right. The sins and alleged crimes of one gay parent say as much about the motivations and beliefs of those who advocate legal adoptions by gays and lesbians as, well, the sins and crimes of one anti-abortion activist who shoots an abortionist say something valid about the motivations and beliefs of people in the mainstream pro-life movement. In other words — next to nothing. We are not going to be discussing that issue here. Trust me.

So why, pray tell, do I mention this story at GetReligion?

As it turns out, Lombard was — until just a few days ago — a veteran member of the vestry at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, N.C., a progressive, activist congregation on gay issues that has been actively scrubbing most signs of his existence from its website. For those not familiar with Episcopal polity, the vestry is the church’s controlling board. Being on the vestry is similar to being on the parish council, in a Catholic or Orthodox context, or on the board of deacons, in a Baptist context.

Now, here’s the journalistic question that we will discuss: Do you think that journalists would be interested if you had a similar criminal case and the accused was a deacon or board member in an evangelical or Catholic congregation that takes strong stands on these kinds of hot-button social issues?

If this kind of sexy story broke in the mainstream press, would this deacon be called a “devout” Southern Baptist or a “devout,” “practicing” Roman Catholic? I would imagine so.

If so, should Lombard be called a “devout” Episcopalian?

If the religion would be relevant in the case of a Christian conservative, should the religion be relevant in the case of the Christian liberal?

Just asking.

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What is love?

teenloveOne of the things my pastor told my husband and me in premarital counseling is that we should think of love as a verb, not a noun. The Christian couple, he said, should know that love is what you do, not what you feel. On a somewhat related note, my father told me that he had counseled couples for marriage who wanted their vows to read “as long as we both shall love” instead of “as long as we both shall live.” Dad pointed out that they’d need something to keep them going after their first week of marriage.

It seems to me that society views love as an emotion, even a sacred emotion. It’s not, as Jenny Sanford wrote in her statement last week, “a commitment and an act of will.”

There’s a huge chasm between people who think that the goodness of a thing is determined by strength of feeling and the people who think the goodness of a thing is determined through some objective measure. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the former viewpoint so well represented as it is in this horrifying (to me, at least) article by Neely Tucker in the Washington Post. He writes that Sanford’s affair with an Argentinian woman is completely different from all those seedier political sex scandals because he actually loved this woman. There is clearly a difference between New York Governor Elliot Spitzer paying tens of thousands of dollars to prostitutes and what we know of Sanford’s relationship with the woman who is not his wife. But both cases deal with lust and a decision to forsake marriage vows — and I’m not so sure the distinction is as important as Tucker seems to think it is.

After describing their love letters as adult epistles from the heart, we get a lot of quotes about how all everything good about romance comes from passion and suffering, not the drudgery of fidelity:

It’s pretty much Shakespearean now. The governor’s wife has taken the children and left him, but says she’ll have him back if he repents. Lawmakers are calling for his head. Paparazzi are circling outside the Buenos Aires apartment of The Other Woman.

“There is something admirable and authentic in his and Maria’s passion for each other, empathy for each other, honesty with each other,” writes Cristina Nehring, author of “A Vindication of Love,” a new book about passion and romance, in an e-mail after reading the pair’s letters. “That said, the relationship of course represents a moral dilemma, to which the answers are not obvious.”

Many other people are quoted talking about the moral dilemma. And how do I put this? I don’t want to speak for all religious people, but there are quite a few Christians for whom the answers are exceedingly obvious. Last week my mother and I were talking about how apparent it was that Sanford had serious feelings for this woman not his wife. She told me that during the course of her (quite passionate, incidentally) marriage, she had met men with whom she would have been much more compatible than my father. She said that the Christian woman must make the immediate decision against pursuing such relationships with people who aren’t her spouse. That God had given her my father and she was the man to whom her love must be directed. In other words: it is an obvious answer. It might be difficult to live the way God wants you to, but it’s obvious none the less.

And yet nowhere in the Post’s secular paean to romance is this idea even broached. Is it because newsrooms don’t even understand the specifics of marital commitment? Do they assume that people who are faithful simply never had an opportunity — or a real desire — to break their vows? I kind of suspect that’s the case. But this piece actually feels like something of an assault on traditional values.

The thing that got me was that the entire piece seemed like a tribute to the most juvenile forms of love. Now that I am married, my understanding of romance, fidelity and love are so much more developed than when I was crazy and single. Take this sample, for instance:

“Happy love has no history,” Denis de Rougemont wrote in “Love in the Western World,” more than two decades ago. “Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love but its passion. And passion means suffering.”

And: “How widespread and disturbing is our fascination with the love that breaks the law. Is this not the sign that we wish to escape from a horrible reality?”

The horrible reality: That perhaps we have found, against all odds and comforts, a love that transcends the meaningless of life, of our reality of dry-cleaning receipts and stubble in the bathroom sink; and that this balm is denied to us.

Sigh. A few centuries ago, Luther responded to this idea that family life is drudgery quite well.

It’s a shame that no opposing perspective was permitted to share space in Tucker’s article. Sure, we’re all obsessed with love that breaks the law. But some people actually mature beyond the Romeo & Juliet idea of romance and are much better off for it.

Trust me — being cognizant of how your behavior affects others doesn’t make your love life less interesting. Far from it. It deepens the passion and the intimacy. That the Washington Post would articulate a love-sick teenagers view of how romance should be is disappointing, to say the least. Believe it or not, religion has something wise to say about all these affairs of the heart. If the Post can mock religion in the Style pages, certainly it can discuss it in other ways as well.

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Jenny Sanford, Catholic heroine?

LadiesoftheOT-746681As interesting as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s bizarre and tormented press conference was — the one where he announced he had something going on with an Argentinian woman, it was his wife’s statement about the matter that I found the most intriguing. In her statement, she overtly references her Christian faith, even quoting scripture.

However, the subtext of the letter is also Christian. Or, as Salon’s editor-in-chief subtly says, she “sounded creepy Christian right themes.” You know, creepy stuff such as the sanctity, dignity and importance of marriage. About the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness. Here’s a sample:

I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal. I believe Mark has earned a chance to resurrect our marriage.

Psalm 127 states that sons are a gift from the Lord and children a reward from Him. I will continue to pour my energy into raising our sons to be honorable young men. I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance.

I don’t know Jenny Sanford from Eve, but it made me curious about her religious views. Her husband referenced some evangelical groups during his press conference, and Wikipedia lists his religious affiliation as Episcopal. Both of the spouses have some strong religious views as evidenced in their statements. I’d like to know more about them.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post piece that should answer those questions really fails. It’s all about how South Carolina’s First Lady has handled her addlepated husband’s infidelity:

Friends said the written statement she issued was classic Jenny Sanford. She told the world that she loves her husband and would strive to repair their marriage, but that she asked him to leave because it was “important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong.”

“Did you read her statement?” asked Marjory Wentworth, a family friend and South Carolina’s poet laureate. “Brilliant, gracious, effervescent.”

Jennifer Sullivan Sanford was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in suburban Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a degree in finance. She took a job handling mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, rising to become a vice president at Lazard Freres & Co.

So she’s Catholic? If so, that’s interesting, considering her husband isn’t. If she’s not, what is she? Where does she go to church? What do we know about her religious views? It’s such an obvious elephant in the room but no one is digging into them. The only description of her religious affiliation that we get is that she was born into a Catholic family. So bizarre.

Speaking of bizarre, here’s the other religious reference in the piece:

Sanford, who still speaks with a hint of a Chicago accent, combines the grace and hospitality of a Southern belle with the street-smart toughness of a Northern businesswoman. Campaign staffers joked that she is “an Old Testament woman with a 170 IQ.”

I’ve been a Christian my whole life and I honestly don’t know what this “joke” means. Is it that Old Testament women are dumb? What’s the joke? I’ve read the Old Testament and I recall there being, to put it mildly, more than one type of woman. Are Eve, Deborah, Jael and Sarah tough but Mary, Elizabeth and Mary Magdalene wusses? Or is it a reference to the notion that the God of the Old Testament is tough as opposed to the “nice” God of the New? Seriously, is there some Southern cultural reference I’m not getting? I’m all for colorful quotes, but it seems to me that you have to set it up a bit better than this.

The bottom line is that religion is oozing out all over this story but the reporters seem ill equipped to handle it. Of course, when you are so Biblically illiterate that you think Psalm 127 is about how male children are superior to female children, perhaps we’re lucky that the reporters are missing the obvious.

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Adulterers who pray together …

sanford2The saga of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford keeps getting stranger. Today we learned that when Sanford ostensibly came clean at his tearful press conference last week that he was, in fact, still lying.

In another tearful talk with the media, Sanford said Maria Belen Chapur wasn’t the only woman he’d “crossed lines” with, though, he claims, she is the only one he had sex with. Sanford also admitted he saw Chapur, whom he called his soul mate, more than he previously claimed.

“This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story,” Sanford said. “A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.”

But that’s not what makes today’s Sanford installment so strange. It’s the conclusion to the Associated Press’ story:

In early 2009, after Jenny Sanford discovered the affair, the couple went into counseling. She has told The Associated Press that he asked her several times to visit the mistress and she refused.

But the governor claims he wanted to end the affair in person and, with his wife’s permission, went to New York with a “trusted spiritual adviser” serving as chaperone. The three went to church and dinner together and parted ways the same night.

But he visited Chapur again in Argentina on June 18, the trip that brought the whole affair to light.

Now, I’ve never had an affair, so I don’t know how these things are supposed to work. (To my wife: I never will.) But I’m pretty sure the way these things end is a bit different than dating. Just because Sanford and Chapur had had five romantic rendezvouses instead of four doesn’t mean he is obligated to call it quits in person. Frankly, I think St. Paul would direct Sanford to man up, make a clean break and not be such a fool as to spend one more dinner with temptation.

These latest revelations will no doubt make for good fodder for the late night talk shows. That’s Sanford’s problem.

But what really irked me about the AP story is how casually the reporter mentions that Sanford traveled to New York with a “trusted spiritual adviser” and how the three — counselor and adulterers — went to church together. And that’s all the reader gets.

We’re not told why they went to church together or where or, most importantly, whether this is a common thing for Christians to do when they are repenting of past sin and, in this case, ending an adulterous affair.

Let me answer that last question: It’s not.

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Theodicy and forgiveness in Iowa

churchfront1Last week, an Iowa high school football coach was shot dead in the school’s weight room. Police charged a 24-year-old former player. The headline made Drudge but I quickly forgot the story and didn’t see much follow-up. Many people talk about the sports page as if it’s got the best writing in the whole newspaper. And they’re probably thinking of reporters like Josh Peter, an enterprise reporter with, of all outlets, Yahoo! Sports. He looked at the shooting and came up with a story about theodicy, forgiveness and the strength of tight-knit communities. Here’s how he began:

PARKERSBURG, Iowa – Not far from the cornfields, in the cool of the morning, Gary Hinders stood waist-deep in a grave. He held a shovel, just like the other four men who took turns digging, first through a foot-and-a-half layer of black dirt, then a mix of sand and clay and finally the stubborn hardpan.

Hinders paused.

“Never thought I’d be digging this one,” he said.

“Not in a million years,” one of the other men said.

“At least not for this reason,” added a third.

Not a bad way to set a scene. The story has plenty of civil religion — of the sports variety. For instance, the football field where Aplington-Parkersburg High School football players competed is called The Sacred Acre. That might have something to do with the storm from last year. In May 2008, a tornado destroyed 288 homes — including Coach Thomas’, killed 9 people and ripped through the school, including the football field. After the storm, people congregated on the field.

But it also has actual religion. Let me highlight a few of those parts. Peter explains that the coach’s murder will test the community even more than it was tested by the tornado that ripped through town:

Hinders, a God-fearing man in a God-fearing town, is among residents who believe it’s no accident the tornado spared all eight churches in Parkersburg. Nor does he believe it’s a coincidence that Thomas – a man known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as for his two state championships and record of 292-84 over 37 seasons – was gunned down.

“You couldn’t pick anybody bigger in this town to shoot,” said Hinders, 60, who has been the town clerk here for 27 years. “That’s evil. . . .

“It’s spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win.”

The man who is charged with shooting Thomas, Mark Becker, is a crystal meth addict. His family and the coach’s family attend the same church. They’re all friends, in fact. The coach had been trying to help the young man with his troubles in recent months.

Peter visits First Congregational Church where Thomas served as an elder:

Sunday morning, police chief Chris Luhring stood watch outside of First Congressional [sic] Church – where the Thomas and Becker families attended. Usually, there were two services. But now there was one – at 9 a.m.

Five rows from the back, there they were, the Beckers.

The back pew was open until moments before the service started. That is when the Thomas family arrived.

Brad Zinnecker, the head pastor, called on God’s mercy for a congregation that had its “guts ripped out.” He spoke of Thomas, recalling a man who could be so fiery on the sideline and yet so measured in church. And some of the worshipers quietly wept.

He prayed for the Thomas family. He prayed for the Becker family. He prayed for forgiveness during the hour-long service, and it already had come. The Thomases and Beckers had spoken earlier in the week, people close to the families said. And the coach’s younger son and wife urged people to pray for the Beckers, who would gain no closure when Ed Thomas’ casket was lowered into the ground.

Elsewhere in the story people are quoted talking about how Thomas emphasized forgiveness.

The piece is long. It covers a lot of ground. But Peter naturally (and seemingly effortlessly) weaves the faith of this town’s inhabitants throughout the story. He not only gets the meaty religious quotes but he puts them in context so that readers unfamiliar with the religious views can still understand. Excellent work.

Image of First Congregational Church, Parkersburg.

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Focus on the president’s family

jim-daly.bigRegular readers of this weblog know that that your GetReligionistas are fans of verbatim question-and-answer interviews, especially when they focus on religious (and political) leaders whose views have previously been crunched down into soundbites and factoids.

Well, the Washington Post team that does the God and Government site offered us a classic example the other day of how to use this tool. If I have a problem with the online feature called “Dobson’s Successor Praises Obama, Looks for Common Ground” it’s that some of the contents really needed to move up a notch to the analog newspaper, perhaps in a solid Sunday editorial-page setting. This is especially true in light of the flame outs taking place right now among the GOP heroes of the old Religious Right (and there is really no need to name names).

Thus, it isn’t a surprise that the new leader of Focus on the Family is interested in talking to First Father Barack Obama about fatherhood and parenting. That used to be what Focus on the Family was known for, after all.

You can also see this feature as the flip side of the Southern Baptist Convention’s current resolutions — passed, with this text — to celebrate the racial reconciliation side of Obama’s rise to the White House, while underlining differences on theology and politics.

Anyway, the White House — this is news in and of itself — invited Jim Daly, the new Focus on the Family president and CEO to that recent summit on fatherhood. Click here for the president’s remarks.

In a way, it probably would have been impossible for Dr. James Dobson to have punched that ticket, without causing a media storm (in mainstream and religious media). But Daly showed up and got some face time with Obama to talk shop. That’s where the Washington Post piece starts, beginning with this question:

What did you think of the fatherhood presentation this afternoon?

It was outstanding. There wasn’t anything lacking in the president’s presentation. He reaffirmed the importance of fathering and the damage done when fathers are lacking in the home. And it’s something that is core to Focus on the Family as well. Thought it was gracious for the White House to extend an invitation to Focus on the Family. We’re certainly going to have enough areas to disagree on certain policies. But one of the things I want to do as president of Focus is when there is common ground that , we can pull together and say, “This is good. This is a good thing.” And personally, I am 47, like the president. I also didn’t have a father. So I can identify with what he describes as that hole in your heart. Anything we can do to help kids fill that void, I applaud. It’s something we’re trying to do every day at Focus and I think it’s wonderful for the government to also lend its support in that way.

FindingHomeAnd here’s another look into those links between the two men:

What did you say to the president?

We shook hands, and I thanked him for the day. And I thanked him for putting attention on this issue of fatherhood and mentioned that, like him, I am 47, and I was raised without a dad. He had made a comment during his presentation that when he called his daughters during the campaign, they would answer with one word. I said, “I was glad to hear you say that because my sons are a similar age and do the same thing, so I’m glad it’s not me.”

He actually said congratulations for becoming president of Focus. I thought that was gracious, and I appreciated that acknowledgment. We have to remember that we’re all human beings. We’re all made in the image of God, and I’m sure everybody is trying hard and, to the degree that we can help in any way, that’s what we want to do.

And listen for this ironic soundbite in the future, which came out of the press conference in which Dobson stepped down as Focus chairman. That’s when the senior leader of the old Religious Right, and the man with the strongest credentials and most loyal followers, said: “What we want to see is more families like Barack Obama’s.”

Read it all. It’s worth the time. In fact, read the transcript of the session at the White House. It’s interesting, in the Q&A time, to note the other people who came and took part.

Hat tip to the omnipresent blogger and correspondent David Brody over at CBN News.

Photos: Recent shot of Jim Daly and the cover of his book.

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Sin and God’s law at a press conference

mark-sanfordI’ve confessed before my unfortunate love of a good scandal — and a good sex scandal all the more. A couple of days ago, I had gotten a tip about what would happen with regard to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s confession of adultery. And as I read accounts of his groundbreaking press conference (on Twitter, yes), I reacted with delight. I’d hoped for something very dramatic and I’d gotten it. A few days ago I read the following C.S. Lewis quote over at Gene Edward Veith’s blog:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.

As my reporter friends and I traded excited emails about Sanford’s demise, I couldn’t help but think of that. Not that Sanford is my enemy but I have a tendency to dehumanize people going through infidelity scandals.

And yet what struck me about the media coverage was how it seemed to miss what I found most interesting about the press conference. Sanford will get what he deserves, I’m sure, but have you ever seen such a display of real flesh and blood and torment? Usually when politicians confess to cheating on their wives, they remind me most of robots. I’m still not convinced that John Edwards, Larry Craig, Elliot Spitzer and Jim McGreevey are actual humans. All the emotion seems manufactured. If the speeches aren’t scripted by a high-priced damage control firm, I’d be shocked. But this? This was real. It was downright uncomfortable to watch someone be so honest about their horrendous moral failings. He was visibly shaken by the damage he’d caused his family.

Sanford’s press conference was also deeply religious. But most of the reports couldn’t care one whit about that. They care about his career, his presumably dashed presidential aspirations, his governorship. And sure, those are very important and interesting things. But sometimes I wonder why reporters can’t see a tremendous story when it’s melting down right in front of them! This is human drama.

The only report I read that seemed to get it was a blog post by Ann Godlasky at USA Today:

Gov. Mark Sanford’s announcement that he had an affair may have sounded more like a confessional than a news conference, dripping with religious language.

She provides quotes about his views on Christian community and forgiveness. But this was the one that got me:

On sin and God’s law:

“It’s not a moral, rigid list of do’s and don’ts just for the heck of do’s and don’ts; it is indeed to protect us from ourselves …

“Sin is, in fact, grounded in this notion of ‘what is it that I want’ as opposed to somebody else …

“There are moral absolutes, and God’s law is indeed there to protect you from yourself, and there are consequences if you breach that. This press conference is a consequence.”

When was the last time you heard a politician talk this way at a press conference? I don’t know what it means, necessarily, but I do know that this is terribly fascinating stuff. I know the media will focus on all of the political angles — Did he visit his Argentinian mistress on the taxpayer dime? Will he be impeached or resign? Even the religion reporters are focused on those angles — but I find the human drama so much more fascinating.

And speaking of that, you should read Mrs. Sanford’s statement about the affair. It’s got a lot of religion in it, too.

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