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The Only Part of Christian Theology Everyone Really Needs

After writing my earlier post on adultery and double standards, I did an interview and heard from some intelligent people who pressed me on some of the matters I raised. I now want to deal with the major concerns they have:

1. Should Newt Gingrich’s adultery disqualify him from running for president? No. Some voters will factor it in, and that is as it should be. But I don’t think his acts of marital infidelity are by themselves dispositive. Most of us are on a moral continuum. We can envision circumstances in which adultery would be a virtual non-factor (say, an indiscretion decades ago, one time, in which genuine repentance was demonstrated). We can also envision circumstances in which adultery would be a larger factor (say, the conduct of John Edwards and John Ensign). Another thing to take into account is whether the act of marital infidelity seems anomalous and isolated or whether it is a manifestation of a more widespread, and alarming, lack of discipline and recklessness. For reasons I’ve discussed, Gingrich’s actions are, in my estimation, problematic. But are they by themselves disqualifying? I don’t believe so.

2. Isn’t the Gingrich comparison to Bill Clinton unfair? After all, Bill Clinton was impeached for a violation of law rather than a violation of his marital vows—and it was Democrats, not Republicans, who wanted to focus on sex during the impeachment trials. As one reader put it to me, “My big concern is helping liberals mis-remember impeachment. The point was never Clinton’s abuse of Hillary. It was his abuse of the presidency, and the legal process.” Absolutely true, and I should have been clearer on this matter.

However, Bill Clinton’s personal life was an issue for many conservatives long before the Lewinsky scandal (Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning, “bimbo eruptions,” etc.). The conservative argument went something like this. Character matters in a president—Americans have believed that since the days of George Washington—and serial infidelity (along with dodging the draft) reflected badly on Clinton’s character. It was one factor—not the most important factor, perhaps, but not an insignificant factor, either—in arriving at a judgment on the merits of a Clinton presidency. My point was that we all struggle to apply the same standard to those we support as distinguished from those we oppose. A liberal is much more inclined to be forgiving of Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions while a conservative is much more inclined to be forgiving of Newt Gingrich’s sexual indiscretions.

Bill Clinton’s actions, then, were more troubling than Newt Gingrich’s because they (a) eventually led to perjury and (b) there was testimony that he had forced himself upon unwilling women. Even taking those differences into account, however, I think it is entirely fair to say that if a liberal Democrat had acted as Newt Gingrich has done, there would be less of an inclination to excuse his behavior by those on the right—and, again, vice versa).

3. Shouldn’t grace and forgiveness shape our views toward those who commit marital infidelity? This is a question that needs to be treated in far more depth than I can possibly manage in a single post. But in broad strokes, the response to it is that grace and forgiveness are appropriate human responses—but too often, especially in politics, they’re invoked casually and trivially. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against what he called “cheap grace,” which he described as “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.”

Grace and forgiveness don’t mean ethical infractions are completely forgotten and never taken into account. And those believing Christians who sometimes hint that forgiveness should inoculate a person from moral criticism, and that rendering moral judgments is “intolerant,” need to be made aware of the dangers of superficial prooftexting. God is not neutral between righteousness and wickedness (to use two words that often appear in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament). In the wrong hands, the argument for grace can easily slide into antinomianism (“against the law”), which rejects the moral law as a relevant part of the Christian experience.

Even so, it’s worth remembering G. K. Chesterton’s aphorism that original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” On grace and forgiveness there is a corollary, less provable but no less important. They may be the only part of Christian theology which all of us really need. Something like that is probably worth keeping in mind, not only when it comes to sexual missteps but other kinds of ethical lapses as well. As a rule, we are pretty quick to take delight in the failures of others, to jump on those who stumble and fall. Schadenfreude is a very common, and not very admirable, human emotion.

There should be a price for failure. But there should be a chance for redemption, too. How to balance these two things is a terribly complicated matter which all of us, myself included, deal with in a terribly imperfect way.


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