The Sanford Affair

Before gleefully claiming the collective scalp of the Republican Party, could we have a civil and sober moment to sympathize with Gov. Mark Sanford and his family?

As we watched his heartrending press conference on Wednesday, our immediate thoughts were for his family. Confessing his infidelity, apologizing to his family and loyal friends, recognizing that breaching God’s law carries serious consequences, it was a stark contrast to other politicians caught cheating who act defiantly. 

Even a state senator who that morning had eviscerated Sanford for “lies” went on television in the afternoon, moved by the emotional wreckage. “Life has problems, and you have to work with people to help them with their problems,” Jake Knotts told CNN. “Personal problems are worse than any political problems.”

“Family values” people, as we get called, aspire to high moral values because we know that they keep people from getting hurt. Mark Sanford’s press conference was a pubic display for the world to watch in real time of how one person’s indiscretion impacts countless innocent people.

But not everyone has a sympathetic bone in their body. Ironically, people who slander “family values” folks for being “judgmental” prove to be the most intolerant. Media salivated over the juicy details of Governor Sanford’s indiscretion and the shattering consequences for his family, staff and friends.  They fixated on how this will affect Republicans, promoting guilt by political-party association. Ideological opponents reveled; posting gleeful comments delighting in a man’s moral failing. Their false premise is “since virtue is difficult, then it’s hypocritical to aspire.”

They miss the larger cultural lessons on civil discourse, the price of betrayal and the resulting family dissolution. These are far more weighty issues than simple party politics. 

In the late 80’s we watched the news coverage of Democrat Jim Wright’s resignation as Speaker of the House of Representatives.  Wright was liberal in his politics, and conservatives deeply disagreed with him.  But there was something heartbreaking about watching the consequences of his moral failure.  One of us commented “but for the grace of God, there go we all.”  Despite the differences, it was profoundly sad.  

In contrast, it is deeply disturbing to witness the glee, cynicism and the downright obscene comments that Gov. Sanford’s announcement elicited among the ranks of pundits and in the blogosphere. 

Let us be clear: Mark Sanford should and will face serious consequences. Watching the clip of his confession is witnessing his political death. But that is far different from enjoying his undoing and shame.  Has this “reality TV” generation become so coarse and hardened that it is incapable of human empathy?  

Why is it that when one conservative fails, all conservatives are condemned? When liberals fail, and even defiantly stake a claim on their right to act immorally, no mud splatters on their allies. There were no debates that former New Jersey Democrat Governor Jim McGreevy’s homosexual adultery would lead to nationwide Democrat party losses.

Engaging in robust political debate is healthy. Our nation was created out of vigorous political arguments.  But it is far different to respond to the emotional upheaval of a political adversary with naked and appalling enjoyment, or assuming that when one person violates a moral standard that the standard is faulty and anyone who holds it is hypocritical.

Christians understand that humans are broken, all of us are sinners in need of redemption through a Savior, Jesus Christ.   God has given us high moral standards, and we commit to help each other to live up to them. People fail (as we all do in some manner). The conversation at that point is: Is the person sorry, willing to make amends, and do all it takes not to fall again?

This is a teachable moment to talk about the natural consequences of infidelity and dishonesty. Rather than a rallying cry for Republicans to throw out “family values” and to disparage marriage, the Sanford affair proves why they are important and worth fighting for.

Just as important is the lesson also to temper moral outrage with an acknowledgment of our own brokenness and the humility to say “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Our prayers are with the Sanford family, and our hearts are repentant for our own shortcomings.