We live in a bipolar culture. We allow ourselves to be drenched in sexual images in movies, on television and on the Internet and then defend First Amendment protection to even the most graphic of them. Then, when a politician acts out what culture promotes, we criticize him, especially if he's conservative, branding him with the equivalent of a "scarlet letter."
In our not too distant past, a feeling of shame made people go into hiding after an adulterous relationship was exposed. Now they go on television to talk about the sleazy details. They either deny it (Herman Cain), admit it and say they've asked God for forgiveness (Newt Gingrich), or pay no political price at all (space limitations prevent me from listing the legion of politicians that fall into this last category.)
Ginger White was on TV last week. She's the Georgia woman who claims to have had a 13-year affair with Herman Cain. White says the alleged affair wasn't "sex for cash." Whew, let's be grateful for some sense of morality, however thin.
In a nation that channels Ado Annie's lament from the musical "Oklahoma" ("I'm just a girl who can't say no"), saying no to anything, including adultery, gets you pegged as a fundamentalist who is attempting to impose his morality on others. How's our failure to impose anything working out for us?
If we maintain that adultery is wrong, shouldn't we have an authority for that judgment? Who decides such things? So the wife (or husband) and kids get upset. Isn't it all about one's personal choice and happiness?
For politicians, it goes deeper. Here is the question I wanted to ask former Senator Gary Hart after his alleged affair with Donna Rice nearly 25 years ago: "If we can't trust you to keep a promise freely made to your wife before God and witnesses, what standard should we use to judge your truthfulness when you make promises to the American people?"
It's not a trick question, but one that goes to the core of an individual's values and character. What is marriage? Is it something for the convenience of the U.S. Post Office for orderly mail delivery, or is there a Higher Authority behind it? For most people, marriage is a sacrament with "rules" firmly established by God and when followed these rules benefit married couples, their children and society. Among the main requirements of marriage is fidelity. "Forsaking all others" is the phrase contained in the Christian marriage vow. Divorce has become widely accepted (though not to the Author of marriage) as a sometimes "necessary evil," but adultery remains for most people what it has always been: a betrayal.
It's not just a religious concept. Ask a person who is married but does not believe in God how he or she would feel about a cheating spouse and you most likely would get the same response you would receive from one who does believe in a higher power: anger and profound disappointment.
In The Washington Post's "Reliable Sources" column last week, Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger asked, "Is an affair still the kiss of death?" That they have to ask the question is another indicator of falling standards. Once, divorce was a political "kiss of death." Now we are debating whether adultery should carry a similar penalty. One shudders to think what might be next.
Ultimately, what voters must decide is this: Does a presidential candidate's personal flaws rise (or fall) to a level that inhibits his ability to do the job of president? Put another way, if you are about to have surgery, do you care if the doctor is a cad, or do you care more whether most of his patients are alive and well?
With the multiple challenges Americans face and with the choices presented to us, if the country is to be made well, voters may just have to sacrifice the ideal for the pragmatic.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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