With Herman Cain's announcement that he was suspending his presidential campaign because of the charges of sexual harassment and of a 13-year affair, issues are raised that the country would do well to think through. The two most obvious are whether we should care about a politician's sexual life and how much the press should report about these matters.
But there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed first: What does adultery tell us about a person? For many Americans, the answer is: "Pretty much all we need to know." This certainly seems to be the case with regard to presidential candidates. The view is expressed this way: "If he can't keep his vows to his wife, how can we trust him to keep his vows to his country?"
I am a religious conservative, but I know this statement has no basis in fact. It sounds persuasive, but it is a non sequitur. We have no reason to believe that men who have committed adultery are less likely to be great leaders or that men who have always been faithful are more likely to be great leaders. To religious readers, I point to God Himself, who apparently thought that King David deserved to remain king -- and even have the Messiah descend from him -- despite a particularly ugly form of adultery (sending Bathsheba's husband into battle where he would assuredly be killed).
And while on the subject of leadership, another question for religious and/or conservative readers who believe that a man who sexually betrays his wife will likely betray his country: Who would you prefer for president? A pro-life conservative who had had an affair, or a pro-choice man of the left who had always been faithful to his wife?
Jimmy Carter, to the best of our knowledge, has been faithful to his wife throughout their long marriage. That is certainly commendable. Did it make him in any way a better president? Has it given moral acuity to the man who wrote a book equating democratic Israel with apartheid South Africa?
And the American who, perhaps singlehandedly, may have prevented inter-racial war in America, Martin Luther King Jr., committed adultery on a number of occasions.
Would John F. Kennedy, a serial adulterer while in the White House, have been any different a president were he faithful?
Just knowing that a man or a woman had extramarital sex may tell us nothing about the person. I have always wanted to know: Why is sexual sin in general and adultery in particular the one sin that many religious people regard as defining a person as well as almost unforgiveable?