The personal character of public figures

The personal character of public figures December 14, 2016

Dan Silliman looks at the relationship between former conservative Rep. Aaron Schock and the white evangelical community Schock claims to have turned to for guidance: “Aaron Schock once turned to Jesus. Now he faces federal charges of political corruption.”

Silliman reflects on the welcoming support and spiritual guidance that newly born-again, just-out-of-prison Chuck Colson once sought and found from evangelical groups and mentors and he wonders why those same folks failed to provide such guidance for the young former congressman.

Schock, you see, quickly went from rising-star and evangelical political poster-boy to former politician. He’s accused of pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign funds, in multiple ways, and then lying about doing so.

I appreciate Silliman’s approach here, but I think there are two flaws with his comparison of Colson and Schock. First, it seems likelier in Schock’s case that his overtures to the evangelical community were never more genuine than the 150,000 miles of imaginary driving he got himself reimbursed for from campaign funds. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the evangelical community of failing to provide spiritual guidance that Schock was perhaps never legitimately seeking.

I’m also not sure it’s fair to say that whatever spiritual guidance the post-Watergate Colson found was a success, either. His reformation started impressively, with the founding of Prison Fellowship, a group that still does great work bringing light and hope into dark places. And in addition to that ministry for those in prison, the group also did some good work on criminal justice reform — challenging the idea of mass-incarceration long before that was a common term.

But over the following decades, Colson shriveled into a caricature of the perpetually indignant culture-warrior. His last big projects involved things like the hilariously self-gratifying Manhattan Declaration — one of the silliest, most disingenuously self-righteous efforts ever produced by a white evangelical community that sometimes seems to specialize in producing such things. So whatever spiritual guidance Colson may have initially benefited from, it failed to prevent him from turning into the shambling bundle of unadulterated spiritual pride he eventually became.

Maybe Schock got off lucky. His unrepentant grifting shielded him from the cardinal sin he might have been consumed by had he genuinely sought to emulate his would-be evangelical mentors.

Silliman’s piece revisits the stark contrast — or flagrant hypocrisy — between the ardent concern for politicians’ personal ethics that prominent white evangelicals expressed during the Lewinsky Era vs. the utter lack of such concern during the Trump campaign. The sheer up-is-downism displayed by prominent evangelical partisan hacks like James Dobson or Jerry Falwell Jr. is impressive. But Silliman also looks past such spotlight-hogging hypocrites to ponder the survey data that shows a similar change happening throughout white evangelicalism.

This U-turn on the importance of personal character and ethics started several years ago. So it doesn’t seem to be a disingenuous convenience adopted to embrace Trump, but rather a disingenuous convenience adopted to oppose Barack Obama:

White evangelicals don’t care as much about corruption in political leadership as they used to. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in October reported that white evangelicals have dramatically revised their opinions about politicians’ personal morality, in recent years.

In 2011, 70 percent said they cared about public figures’ personal morality. Personal ethical behavior was connected, they believed, to faithfully fulfilling the duties of public office. In 2016, only 28 percent of evangelicals still thought this, while the majority of them told pollsters that public figures’ personal morality didn’t really matter.

President Obama served the country with personal dignity and grace, untouched by even the hint of a shadow of any personal, financial or sexual scandal. The one attempt to scandalize Obama when he was still a candidate — by twisting and distorting the words of his former pastor — didn’t work out well for Obama’s opponents. He responded with a remarkable speech — part sermon, part civics lesson — that history books will be quoting generations from now.

Obama’s personal character, his family life and his finances, provided no fodder for his enemies. Attacking him on that basis was like trying to smear Fred Rogers — or Steve Rogers. So his opponents and enemies had to turn elsewhere — to fantasy, fake news, and the fetid racist fever-dreams of “alt-right” neo-Nazis, Alex Jones loons, and the “birther” lies of a lecherous faux-billionaire.

In other words, an emphasis on “personal ethical behavior” ceased to matter because it ceased to be useful.

If personal ethics and character were treated as meaningful and important, then white evangelicals would have to concede that — despite any disagreements they might have with his policies — Barack Obama, as a person, deserved their respect. And, since they couldn’t bring themselves to concede that, they simply tossed aside their earlier “principled” belief that “Personal ethical behavior was connected … to faithfully fulfilling the duties of public office.”

(This abandonment of concern for personal ethics and personal morality was also fueled, I think, by the long Republican primary campaign before the 2012 election. White evangelicals toyed with one unqualified not-Romney candidate after another before eventually, begrudgingly, settling on the Mormon. Mitt Romney’s scandal-free personal life wasn’t perceived as a virtue by white evangelicals, just as the rubbing of salt into an old wound — the constant reminder that Latter Day Saints always seem, as a whole, to be way better at white evangelical piety than white evangelicals have ever managed to be.)

This has happened before. Evangelical concern for the personal morality of political leaders probably peaked after Watergate, which was a big part of why, in 1976, they supported a governor from the Bible Belt who was a Navy hero, a Baptist Sunday-school teacher, and a man of almost painful personal integrity. Four years later, though, they abandoned that guy, rallying behind the religious right as it rallied behind a twice-married former Hollywood star who campaigned on states rights and saber-rattling anti-Communism.

Reagan’s history of Hollywood and divorce were, very briefly, matters of ethical concern for white evangelical voters. His pledge to support “states rights” — at a campaign kick-off in Neshoba County, Mississippi — was never perceived as a matter of personal ethics or morality. Nor were his hateful lies about “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks.”

That’s the larger problem with this whole idea of “personal ethical behavior.” Yes, character counts, but it’s strange — and revealing — what counts as character, and what apparently doesn’t count. Opposition to civil rights, labor rights, and welfare always seem to be placed in the column of “policy,” not in the column having to do with morals and ethics. One’s personal sexual behavior and personal finances are matters of character and ethics. One’s public views about discrimination, fair play, or the treatment of people who don’t have personal finances — those have always been segregated from this airy talk about “personal ethical behavior.”

 

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