As most of America knows by now, recently a picture went out from New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter feed to a pretty young coed, containing a picture of some bulging underpants. The picture was quickly deleted from yfrog and Twitter, and Weiner claimed that his account was hacked. A lot of folks seemed willing to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt, but then his actions, evasions and non-answer answers have only intensified interest in the story and speculation about what really might have happened. Weiner denies that he sent the photo out; he does not deny that the picture is indeed his own. Nor does he deny that he has Twitter conversations with a fairly select group of eligible young ladies, or with porn stars who insist that he Tweets to them are really quite, you know, innocent.
I don’t want to get into the merits and demerits of the various arguments here, because that’s precisely my point. What is the utility of this kind of argument? Is this something on which we ought to be spending our time? The blogosphere is all abuzz and our televisions are filled with talking heads discussing the ins and outs of the story. But is this something that we as Christians ought to care about? Here are a couple points for engaging in this kind of conversation, and some points against it.
1. The comic value alone is priceless. When else can you use a title like the one for this post? When Jon Stewart suggested the picture might be Weiner’s, because it shows that he “leans hard to the left,” I could not stifle a laugh. Nor, for that matter, did I try. Being a believer does not mean one cannot have a sense of humor. But this is not a compelling reason why Christians ought to care about, much less argue about, whether Rep Weiner is sending such pictures to adoring female fans.
2. Character matters. Representative Weiner already does make important decisions on our behalf, as a member of the House of Representatives, and (if tales of his ambitions are true) he aspires to make even more of them in the future. We need to know whether he is upstanding, honest and trustworthy. If he is fool enough to send lewd photos via Twitter to a young woman he had only recently met, can we really trust him with the enormous responsibilities that come to one as the mayor of a major city, the governor of a state, or the President of the United States? If he is duplicitous enough to remove the incriminating evidence, repeatedly lie about the situation, and then berate and even call the cops on any reporter intrepid enough to press for an answer, then can we trust him to tell us the truth about our economy, our health care system, our foreign affairs, when it does not serve his political interests? If he is faithless enough to betray his recent marriage…well, you get the picture. Americans would like to trust their politicians, and we trust those who demonstrate character and honesty. If Weiner is demonstrating neither of those right now, then the American electorate needs to know about it.
3. Unilateral disarmament in political warfare is tantamount to suicide. This is also known as the “The Other Party Does It” defense. Democrats make hay with the faults and infidelities of Republican figures such as John Ensign, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, David Vitter, et al. If they had not made a big deal of Newt Gingrich’s indiscretions, we might be looking at a current or former President Newt right now. Who can say where the devious Rep. Weiner might end up, if he is not (it’s hard to avoid puns here) exposed now for who he really is? If Republicans do not advance the ball when it’s in their possession, they’ll find themselves constantly on defense; if only one side carries out character assassinations on these sorts of things, while the other side gives up its arms, the latter will get slaughtered, will it not? And perhaps we will find ourselves under the governance of leaders who are profoundly morally corrupt?
1. We have much, much more pressing concerns right now. Economists are mortified by the leading economic indicators. “Welcome to the recovery” has been replaced by “Did we just drive right past the recovery?” We face an entitlement crisis, an ocean of red ink, and various strains on the international financial system at the same time as our political system is paralyzed and sclerotic. We’re engaged in kinetic warfare in several places around the world. Gas prices have gone through the roof. Once-stable parts of the world seem unstable, as nascent democratic movements take shape and threaten to be engulfed by new forms of old tyrannies, and even highly advanced civilizations like Japan’s are at the mercy of sudden disasters. In short, it’s no coincidence that Harold Camping’s doomsday prophecy spread like wildfire; people are feeling like the world is unmoored and they wonder if it will ever feel stable and safe again.
In the midst of all this, we’re discussing…whether a lowly House Representative sent someone a picture of himself in his underwear? I don’t buy for a minute that Rep. Weiner is being principled when he tries to put this “distraction” behind him. But perhaps we should be.
2. Character doesn’t matter with this character. Weiner was never exactly a paragon of virtue in the first place. He’s a brash, angry, acid-tongued political brawler from New York. He never sought to build a career on his family portrait and sterling old-fashioned values. He’s built a career on being a kind of hyper-partisan attack dog, a Tom Delay for the limousine liberal set.
Some Republicans will protest that it’s important to uncover the general depravity of the Democratic party, or at least its leadership. But this runs afoul of one of my first principles of faithful political engagement: specifically, the un-titillating but very important principle that people are more or less the same. I do not believe that people in one party are significantly more moral or caring or even intelligent than the people in the other party. Or, to put it more negatively, neither party has a monopoly on good ideas and good intentions — or, for that matter, on bad ones. There are different cultural values between the two parties, to be sure, and those values may be more or less in line with biblical values, but I do not believe that the members, much less the leadership of one party are significantly more virtuous than that of the other. We don’t need Rep. Weiner to illustrate that Democrats are immoral because, well, we’re all immoral, all prone to temptation. There but for the grace of God goes each and every one of us.
3. Political priapism is not strategically sound. This is not a time for theatrics and gamesmanship. This is a time, perhaps moreso than any time in recent memory, when the American people will reward the party that puts forth the most serious people advancing the most serious ideas. We are anxious. We’re afraid for the future of our country, concerned that the old stabilities are foundering. Under such circumstances, those who dither and talk about underwear bulges come across as childish, unserious and unworthy of our attention.
For Christians on both sides of the aisle, this is an opportunity to set a tone. I’m skeptical whether “the other side does it” is ever a legitimate excuse for a believer, since Christ taught us to begin with the logs in our own eyes. If Christians want to show the way toward a better kind of political dialogue, a more honest, charitable and focused dialogue, then this might present the perfect opportunity.
What would be the consequences if Christians took seriously, as a political matter, Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Of course, this needn’t mean that we look the other way when a politician commits a grave sin that demonstrates an absence of character. But it does mean that Christians should not attach too much importance to such things, should not get so caught up in the political sport of it all that he or she forgets to focus on the most important public policy challenges facing the present moment.
If others want to carry on with the Weiner roast, that’s their prerogative. I don’t think it’s worthy of the calling of the politician or the writer, and I don’t think it demonstrates the kind of high integrity that a Christian participant in political dialogue ought to seek to model. We have policy problems, but many stem from our process problems. We need better forms of political dialogue. Let’s try to lead by example.
What do you think? Are there other points I’m missing here? Is this time wasted, or time well spent?