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Republican senator John Ensign of Nevada was unfaithful to his wife. There’s no excusing broken vows, but the steps he has taken since the story broke on Wednesday provide a reminder that there is a road to redemption in truth — and not just for one United States senator and his family, but for American politics. In his public confession and acts of atonement, Ensign has brought a refreshing change to the handling of Beltway loose-belt scandals.
In a press conference, Ensign — said to have been motivated by a blackmail threat — admitted an affair with an employee. He didn’t excuse it. He said he regretted it. He apologized for it. He said, “It is the worst thing I have ever done in my life.” He said that he and his wife had sought counseling and that their marriage has never been stronger. The next day, Ensign resigned his leadership post in the Senate.
That same day, the media, naturally were all atwitter. Twitter, too. That Ensign cheated on his wife didn’t inspire as much outrage as the fact that he had dared to criticize Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Ensign had said that the president’s behavior was “an embarrassing moment for the country.” It was. Ensign’s own embarrassing moment doesn’t change that. On MSNBC’s Hardball, Chris Matthews said the episode exposed social conservatives — Ensign counts himself among us — as being “no different than anybody else.” This is not breaking news.
The left-wing blogosphere went mad over the fact that Ensign was on record expressing a desire to protect the institution of marriage. He had written, “Marriage recognizes the ideal of a father and mother living together to raise their children,” in a statement in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment. He continued, “Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded,” a sacred institution predating our Constitution and our government.
A politician’s failings do not render the beliefs to which he subscribes morally impotent. Facts remain. Marriage is a cornerstone. Under a bastardized and unfortunately widespread understanding of hypocrisy, it is “hypocritical” for someone who is not a perfect person to ever make a statement grounded in conscience, morality, or natural law. Presumably, then, all Christians should throw out their Book. The Bible is and always has been directed to sinners. And, save for the star of the show, the preaching comes from sinners, too. Christ warned Peter in Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In Romans, Paul said: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Men (and women) believing something and falling short has a long history.
In an editorial, the Washington Post decreed, “Mr. Ensign’s marital infidelity is a matter between him and his wife. Mr. Ensign’s hypocrisy . . . is a matter of legitimately broader interest.” Martial infidelity isn’t a wholly irrelevant issue when it comes to public office. It does speak to character. It’s not illegitimate for a constituent to wonder what a politician’s oath of office means to him once he has broken his marriage vows. But hypocrisy is not what the Post and so many others say it is.
“We modern men and women hate hypocrisy, but we have a mistaken idea of what this means,” Fr. Thomas D. Williams, author of Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience (Hachette, 2009), recently said. “Some say that a hypocrite doesn’t practice what he preaches, but this isn’t hypocrisy. None of us perfectly practices what he preaches. We all fall short. The solution of lowering our moral bar to match our imperfect behavior doesn’t make us less hypocritical; it just makes us more mediocre. Keeping the bar high and maintaining our moral ideals helps us to strive for moral greatness rather than settling for moral poverty.”
I confess that my first instinct was certainly not to praise Senator Ensign upon learning of his infidelity. But I am all too aware that I’m flawed too. In our world of flawed men and women, surely there should be a little room for sympathy on an op-ed page. John Ensign did a shameful thing; he is ashamed of it. I’m sure he won’t be perfect from here on in, but his actions in the wake of his fall make a statement about personal responsibility — to family, to a public oath, to truth. And in this, he is not setting a poor example.