Southern AdulterationBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Devon, PA. I have had only a few hours to appreciate the spectacle of talking-heads devouring the carrion of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s political career, but have heard thrice already a rather predictable denunciation from rather predictable quarters. The necessary details are few: a conservative southern governor – whose reputation primarily rested upon his small government, economically libertarian sympathies, but who sought also the favor of that part of the conservative base most strongly committed to Christian belief and the peculiarly American moral code that prioritizes the nuclear family as the secondary institution ordering society – has confessed to adultery.
The response was swift: Democratic strategists such as Paul Begala immediately issued associative meditations coupled with vitriolic denunciations whose total intellectual value is negligible as argument but infinite as symbolic expression of the debased state of American moral conversation in our time. Begala and his ilk declaimed roughly thus: “We are so sick of the far right extremists trying to tell us how to live our lives, what morality is, and that we are not moral; we are sick of the hypocrisy that someone like Sanford should oppose pederastic “marital” unions and sodomy, that he should oppose the unlimited and elective abortion of the unborn, and then turns out to be a cheat on his wife.” Of course the pundits plunk euphemisms like “gay rights” and shibboleths like “women’s health,” but the substance was as I give it.
We can parse such statements in several ways, but I wish only to explain the strange compound such an argument makes, and further to indicate the peculiarly American crisis that Sanford’s actions exacerbate and which Begala’s et al. jeremiads try to mask.
Ah, the Hypocrites: American Utilitarian Relativism at Its Finest
One may, first of all, observe that a husband cheating on his wife directly relates neither to laws and opinions on homosexual actions nor to the murder of the unborn. Why should all these matters-the sanctity of the marital union, the redefinition of that union to include pederasts, and the institutionalized slaughter of unborn children-why, again, should all these matters be substantively related? Does the Begala-styled mess of complaints end at the level of rhetoric, or does it reach deeper? For both an unhappy reason and for a crucial one, Begala is correct to associate these literally miscellaneous questions.
Unhappily, Begala and much of the Democratic party represent the sentiments of contemporary American society quite accurately; from Begala’s exaggerated indignation at catching the apparently pious in the commission of sin, to his asinine reasoning that can at best be described as a “foolish consistency,” he really gets Americans. Much of that society manifests a fragmentary secularized Christianity whose entire system of moral judgment centers upon a word often heard on the lips of Jesus Christ himself: hypocrisy. This morality’s origin and premises are simple. We all recall, more or less vaguely, that Christian teaching makes demands upon the individual human person not only to act but to think and to feel in obedience to the love of God. Most Americans recall, moreover, that even regarding our actions, the Way of Christ is a narrow passage indeed. Despite the admonitions of our elders to do good and avoid evil, despite the fading, almost forgotten, images of Hell they have us entertain and inform us are but a preview of the real damnation that awaits the sinner, and despite even the evident this-worldly consequences of sin that are all around us, if you are an American, then chances are you think sin is just so much “guilt”-stupid, unnecessary guilt-standing in the way of every happiness, erotic or otherwise. Sin is a superstitious obstruction to pleasure, an assertion of an objective moral order with implications for personal responsibility, where, in truth, there is no such order and our only responsibility is to be “safe” or “healthy.”
What is one to do? One has been told that things like lust, fornication, sodomy, child-slaughter, and infidelity are sinful, and yet at least some of those things either sound really good or at least sound necessary if we are to live the way we want to live, with the wonted convenience and comfort. Thanks to the modern invention of rationalization, which, I believe, Freud defined by drawing on an abundant archive of case studies, our society has plowed on through these objections and admonitions and declared itself free; all this moral mumbo-jumbo amounts to archaic repressions on legitimate individual desires (where, of course, the only judge of a desire’s legitimacy just happens to be the person desiring; Cf. Edmund Burke: “no man should be judge in his own cause“).
Relative conviction that a sense of sin and moral proscriptions are a mere check on happiness aside, most Americans retain some secularized shreds of Christian belief. They feel, as a velleity, that, for example, fornication is wrong, because they remember having been told thus, but they also really would like to fornicate. This almost existential unease naturally leads to a vehement rejection of all voices who would remind them of the morality they have rejected; and so, if someone preaches continence, abstinence, or even chastity, the average American, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, the ignorant American Cartesian immediately seeks to tear down that voice’s authority. “What right do you have to condemn me?” we hear; “Who do you think you are?” The rationalization obvious in this tearing-down of authority swiftly if all too obviously gets masked by a vague and simple memory of Christian teaching. Judge not lest ye yourself be judged, that sieve of cultural memory, the American mind, hears trickling in the darkness. Thus, knowing that almost any moral code would condemn his behavior, and that certainly the one to which he is ungrateful heir does, the American refuses the substance of that code, save for a severed maxim about judgment and humility. Forget the humility, he says to himself, but I will keep the non-judgmental part so long as the action to be judged does not lead to my immediate harm. We are now a society of people who tolerate the misdeeds of others only so that we may practice freely misdeeds of our own, and the one commandment left standing is that which mediates between all these misdeeds: the judgment never to judge.
Such are the simplistic origins of contemporary moral relativism. The great number of Americans I have in mind are not nihilists wasting away in despair save when they find passing comfort in the beds of acquaintances and strangers. They are utilitarian rather than principled relativists, who reject any limits on their individual libidos; and so, to avoid having to consider why their libidos’ irrational free exercise might not be a good thing, they simply renounce judging that free exercise in others. They have not rejected Christian morality because, on reflection, they find it wanting; they simply find it a buzz-kill and see that a critical mass of their fellow Americans agrees. The moral consensus seems to be that if we do not try to reach a consensus we are free to be moral “any way we like.” This amounts to an ingenious system of convenience-save the moment some “self-righteous” person dares tell them that what they are doing is sin: that it may lead to a disordering of pleasure and happiness in this world and to the great unhappiness of damnation in the next. And so, at that moment, the American utilitarian relativist pounces in righteous indignation. “Don’t judge me!” he cries, knowing that any judgment could only militate against the use of the fine assortment of prophylactics he has just stowed in the dresser drawer beneath a glossy illustrated monthly, his subscription to which generally goes unmentioned in the company of the opposite sex.
As Cardinal Newman said about the English utilitarians, we may say about this modern amoral majority of relativists: they aimed low and succeeded at what they aimed. The modern American finds any substantial moral code oppressive and difficult, and so reduces the demands of moral life almost to nothing. He thus is able to slide through the world with ease, with a lightness akin to that normally encountered only in air hockey. He manifests a consistency so nearly perfect as to be subhuman, for he lives up to the only moral demand he makes upon himself-abstinence from judgment of the sexual lives of others. What he aims at and what he achieves are one.
No space remains in the moral imagination of such a person for sin. For what, after all, would be sin? Every sin must be the individual failure of a person to live up to the code of thought and action he accepts as true and as binding upon himself. The American utilitarian relativist cannot sin, because he recognizes that if he is tempted to do something it must be all right, and that it would be only self-repression not to indulge the temptation. He aims low and succeeds.
That same relativist looks at the believing Christian and can see only one thing: he interprets sin as hypocrisy. I have encountered this character more times than I can count in my life. The virtue of temperance being something less than connatural to my character, acquaintances of mine over the years have often said, “Why do you set a standard for yourself that you’re just going to screw up anyway?” When they get defensive, they say, “That’s just sad. You live your life perpetually failing, whilst I at least meet my own standards of good behavior.”
I exaggerate: the American utilitarian relativist does not say “whilst,” but he does say everything else as I have given it. The sense of sin has become unintelligible to him, for he cannot understand that human life is called to ends higher than the satisfaction of concupiscent desires, and therefore cannot comprehend that a natural, rational, and binding set of moral laws might actually be difficult to obey. I find it a strange standard of conduct indeed that so many persons elect as the litmus test of the goodness of an action whether it would require self-denial and self-government to avoid it. What kind of moral system can remain if our standard is simply the ease of conformity to its precepts? Well, we have our answer: the kind that preaches doing as one likes so long as one does not judge the fellow committing bestiality in his backyard or the drug-addled consumer of internet pornography who lives three flights up.
If abstinence from moral judgment is our society’s one commandment, then the only mortal sin it can any longer comprehend is that of the person who proclaims a moral truth and fails to live up to it. Again, strictly speaking, this is sin; it is certainly not what Christ had in mind when he called the Pharisees “hypocrites.” Our Lord accused of “hypocrisy” those who did the right thing for the purpose of appearing, as it were, right-souled rather than out of the simple, naturally hidden, love of God. But our age denounces as “hypocrite” anyone who does not do in his own life what he proclaims to be obligatory in everyone’s life.
So quickly do we hear “hypocrisy!” shouted that we seldom hear the echoing unintelligibility of that claim. To state a moral truth as a fact and to fail to live up to that fact are two distinct actions. We take it for granted-do we not?-that the addict of heroin does not, in virtue of his addiction, renounce the authority to say that such addiction has grave and sorrowful consequences that all men should avoid? Despite the best efforts of consumer culture and (surprise!) the administrative State, we still sometimes meet a person suffering from homosexual tendencies who nonetheless declares those desires abnormal and the life enslaved to them an unhappy one. In our age of identity politics and anti-intellectual chatter about “empathy” and suffering, we actually tend to privilege the person who suffers a wrong as the sole authority in a position to condemn that wrong. And so, it hardly makes sense for us to suggest that someone with grave moral failings of his own is therefore not in a position to make objective observations about the contents of morality in general.
To be sure, the finest form of ethical instruction and judgment may be found in the man whose entire life conforms to the high and complex precepts he knows to be true. Socrates won the admiration, and fell prey to the murderous envy, of his fellow Athenians because in him the knowledge of moral truth and obedience of it were one. Not only did he preach against the desires of the flesh, but he showed his complete indifference to them, as a drunken Alcibiades once complained. But those of us who are aware that the demands of the moral life transcend the weak complacencies of American utilitarian relativism are no less aware that what we proclaim to be true will all too frequently exceed the goodness our own lives manifest. This is what we mean by sin. A full human being reasons and wills as a unity; a beast wills without reason; and a sinner reasons at variance with his will.
We accept that human life has a dramatic structure largely defined by the greatness of the truth and the inconsistent and imperfect actions of the sinful human being. To the typical American, this drama has become unintelligible and is promptly dismissed as “hypocrisy” or senseless “repression.” As Graham Greene once observed, the difference between the Christian and the secularized modern is that the Christian sins and knows what it means-he knows on what path he is headed. The secularized modern knows no path, and so cannot fail to get where he aims; he believes the mind is its own place, and can make a heaven of hell so long as its subjective desires are indulged and satisfied.
A Civilization Is What It Desires
But let us return to the Begala-esque comments of which these reflections are meant as an interpretation. The critics of Sanford are correct to associate adultery with pederasty and abortion for another reason. C.S. Lewis remarks somewhere in Mere Christianity that pride, and not sexual desire, is the greatest sin of which the Christian lives in fear. In some sense, he is surely right, but in another he is no less surely wrong. Human life consists, fundamentally, of learning to desire the right thing and learning how to desire it in the right way. In our age, the raging erotics of material consumption and sexual consumption, the owning of things and the using of ours and others’ bodies for pleasure, testifies that a civilization is always defined by the things that is loves. American society loves more than anything, it appears, non-reproductive sex with an indeterminate number of partners in neutral-toned, tastefully appointed condominiums equipped with a flat-screen and an iPod-equipped six-speaker stereo. The American utilitarian relativist knows his heaven better than St. Paul knew his. St. Paul was unsure, he claimed, whether he ascended to the Third Heaven bodily or only with his soul; the American utilitarian relativist has been living in heaven off-and-on for decades now and he knows that it is only his body that can live there.
The average American knows that if he is going to get to heaven, no inconvenient restraints on the satisfaction of his exclusively sexual desires can be brooked. To him, pederasty and abortion are cufflinks on his flesh tuxedo, ostensibly incidental but in fact quite essential, because they affirm that no matter how completely he may indulge his desires there will always be, respectively, somebody doing something more vile and a technological means to free him from the unintended consequences. Thus, to condemn even one aspect of American sexual morality seems to jeopardize the integrity of the whole system. The typical American may not yet hear the condemnation of bestiality as an attack on his “right” to hook up with a bar trollop or to cruise the information superhighway for hardcore pornography, but he does hear such a preachy threat implied in the words of anyone who would defend the integrity of the family, the sanctity of unborn life, or conformity to the natural ordering of human sexual desires.
And he is correct to hear such an attack. If a civilization is defined by what it loves, then the complete lineaments of that civilization will be implied in any judgment of its desires. Thus the express centrality and elevation of eros in Christian morality. When we talk about sex, we are not talking about one miscellaneous and detached item in the inventory of human life among others; we are talking about the ordering principle of a complete way of life. Learning to desire the right things and in the right way is not something a human person might do: it is this that constitutes the particularly human quality of human life as a whole. Thus, in judging the pederast, the Christian is not saying, “You’re doing fine, just wear smaller heels and lose the lisp.” He is striking at the root of a life constructed entirely upon the foundation of disordered desires.
And so, when we learn that Governor Sanford has adulterated his marriage, we are right to call into question the integrity of his reputation, his character, as a whole. The Begala-esque cry of “hypocrisy” may be foolish, but the instinct in which it is founded is correct. The Begalas of the world, of course, make this cry not because they are disappointed Sanford did not live up to the standards he has proclaimed in the past; they shout because they do not want any standards to govern our public and private life at all. They will be happy when adultery has no political consequences because it has no private consequences, and that will happen only when Americans care so little about character, desire, and marriage that one more adulterous politician means nothing. In other words, if Begala rightly draws a connection between Sanford’s infidelity and his political positions on “family values,” he does so not because he appreciates the natural unity of those positions as expressions of a well-ordered human life, but because the prospect of such unity terrifies him. He wants us all to separate them, just as he has tried to do; he wants us to reach the conclusion that it does not matter what someone does in his “private life,” because that is his business. And, until we all reach this flabby consensus it remains a consensus under threat; for every person who takes exception to it issues, by his very existence, a rebuke.
The Begala-liberal wants us to segment and isolate the different aspects of a single human character, and to act as if they were irrelevant to each other. Only when we all become completely enervated with the moral life will the American utilitarian relativist have secured a complete victory, for he will at last have dissolved even the last lingering moral judgment that somehow a human life is a single responsible being; we will then, at last, be free to think of human life as such a meaningless and inconsequential series of desires. We will no longer judge others for what they desire, for there will be no “self” to judge. Eros will at last be free to run in myriad directions-as many as the nervous system can sustain. And, fittingly, such a triumph of individual desires over even the individual self-not to mention over society, civilization, and truth-will lead not to a new era of freedom and pleasurable prosperity, but to extinction. For, there will be, for a time, much sex and few children; and then there will be little sex and much boredom; and then at last there will be a great Melanesian silence.
The Role of the American Nuclear Family
By way of conclusion, I would address one further point that draws together the superficially strange threading of hypocrisy, infidelity, homosexuality, and abortion. Above, I noted that Sanford represents, in the mind of the leftist media, a Far Right committed to “Christian belief and the peculiarly American moral code that prioritizes the family.” I have addressed the implications of Sanford’s adultery for Christian belief, and so would like to underscore that it has distinct implications for American morality-which is not in many ways identical with Christian morality.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in American democratic society, the family-along with local self-government, free private associations, and religious belief-was an aristocratic residue that worked to counteract the leveling, skeptical, and individualistic tendencies of democracy. In aristocratic societies, the clan, extending across generations, give shape to morality, love, culture, and even the topography. In a pure democracy, the individual feels alone, weak, and listless; he consequently puts all his trust in an impersonal, centralized, and all-powerful state to provide everything he cannot provide for himself. The genius of American democracy was its success at modifying certain aristocratic traditions and habits in order to stave off the isolating, individualistic tendencies present within it. American democracy compromises with aristocracy and saves its soul thereby.
No feature of American life performed this function better than the American nuclear family. As Tocqueville observed, the American family was more transient than the aristocratic one. The aristocratic family, again, extends across generations, so that a living patriarch feels a debt of fealty to his ancestors and seems to know and love already his unborn posterity. The American family, on the other hand, was reducible to what we now call its “nuclear” component. Such families are always being made and are always fading away with every generation. The stability that depended only upon the sustained, rooted household and family name in aristocracy came increasingly to weigh upon the individual father and mother in America. The aristocratic family tended to be cold and formal, because everyone within it knew clearly how much he depended upon staying in the good graces of its hierarchy for his own survival. In contrast, American families tended to be less hierarchical and more richly bonded by affection alone. While this made daily life happier-an exercise in the warm, soft glow of familial love-it also put even greater burdens of responsibility upon the parents, for their authority to sustain their family only extended as far as their children’s’ affection allowed.
In brief, while the family is the structural unit of all societies-it indeed is the little state of which political states are constructed and for which they exist-in America, the nuclear family is the main institution by which our society keeps itself from falling entirely and hopelessly into the dichotomy of countless, isolated, and weak individuals and a singular, omnipotent, impersonal government. Tocqueville remarks (with his own experience to confirm) that, in aristocratic societies, adultery and other forms of infidelity are of little consequence; the family is much larger than any pair of persons and it is the family name across generations that orders society rather than the love of husband and wife. But, in America, the case could not be more different. Every adultery in America is a devastating blow to the integrity of the family; as such, it is a blow not only to the happiness of the particular family, but to the system of “secondary institutions,” as Tocqueville calls these aristocratic residues, that maintain American democracy as a society at all. Without the nuclear family as a robust and revered institution, we do not have a society: we have a giant pocket of individuals ruled by a sublime leviathan, with nothing left between.
The betrayal of the marital union is a contemptible sin for myriad reasons; anyone who understands the true nature of a sacrament understands also that its violation is a sacrilege. But something other is at stake in the case of Sanford, or, for that matter, the Clintons, the Gingriches, Gullianis, and McCains, when a public figure’s marriage ends in divorce or is hobbled by infidelity. Their succumbing to disordered sexual desires have immediately social consequences, for they further the apparent decay of the nuclear family as an institution that sustains American life. They weaken the family in reputation, and so undermine it in substance. They chip away at the last dike standing between America as a society and the flood tide of individualism and infinite state power.
American society would flourish far better could it sustain a more extended and complex conception of the clan than that which prizes exclusively the nuclear family. But such hypotheses aside, it is the nuclear family we have. Weakened and depleted though it may be by illegitimate births (40% of all births), divorce (roughly half of all marriages end in divorce), mobile meritocracy (wherein children leave home permanently at an early age and “relocate” to distant cities), and a general sense of the superfluity of its arrangements (useless children in front of the television, hot-pockets in the microwaves, and parents working in separate cubicles across town from one another), the nuclear family perseveres and preserves America as a society and civilization rather than as a clientalist bureaucratic welfare state administering seed to plucky free-range individuals, featherless, featureless, and sterile.