Virtue is as virtue does?

Posted: May 06, 2003 12:00 AM

If I were a betting man, I would wager the demons in hell are rejoicing over the news that William Bennett has been outed as a gambler. His critics, who never liked imposing a moral code on themselves and so rejected the idea that such a code was good for anyone else, are celebrating what they perceive to be a vindication of their position.

That attitude was expressed in a column by Michael Kinsley in the May 5 Washington Post: "Sinners have long cherished the fantasy that William Bennett, the virtue magnate, might be among our number." It is peculiar when liberals refer to "sin," a diagnosis for human depravity they long abandoned, replacing it with "dysfunctional" to explain why we seem incapable of perfecting ourselves.

Kinsley and others argue that Bennett's gambling habit was "victimless." But no person exists in a vacuum. Our personal behavior creates ripples that touch other lives. Bennett has a family - his own and a larger "family" of people who have been positively influenced by his secular sermons, as well as our culture that needs voices like his to respond to those whose behavior and "preaching" have led to societal deviance.

Bennett admits to wagering a lot of money over several years (Newsweek and Washington Monthly magazine claim it was $8 million, which his wife, Elayne, denies to USA Today), but he says he did not gamble "the milk money."

Gambling is a vice, which Bennett now realizes, and he has pledged not to gamble any more. He should also give up his "penny poker" game, because, just as an alcoholic must not have an "occasional" beer, neither can a problem gambler play for lesser stakes and not be hooked again.

Kinsley's primary objection to Bennett, after indulging in the fun of clucking over another "fallen" moralizer, is that Bennett is "smug, disdainful (and) intolerant." No more so than the people who have "imposed" their immorality on the rest of us through the media and the courts. Telling people they ought to stop doing certain things and start doing other things is not the way to win friends, but a prophet, who speaks the thoughts and standards of others, can never have winning friends as his primary objective, not if he is to influence people.

Most of the Psalms were written by King David. David had an affair with a married woman named Bathsheba. He ordered her husband, Uriah, sent to the front lines because David knew Uriah would be killed. She was pregnant at the time with David's child. Still, God used David, after he repented, to produce some of the most beautiful, profound and yes, "virtuous," words ever written. (see 2 Samuel 11)

If the standard is that one must be perfect in order to speak or write about man's fallen nature - or about societal weaknesses - then we would have no laws or morals at all, because "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), including those who write the laws to control us. Every word in Scripture came from the pen of a man who had sinned. It is not how far short of the standard anyone has fallen, but whence comes the standard itself. Neither Bill Bennett nor I make the rules or set the standard. Was Bennett humble enough? Probably not. Am I? Absolutely not. Does that dilute the power of the standard we proclaim? Certainly not.

Even had Bennett been perceived as humble, would that have mattered to critics like Kinsley? Unlikely. Mother Teresa was the most humble person I have ever met, but her humility probably did not convert many pro-abortionists to her point of view.

Bennett's enemies will use his gambling problem as a kind of reverse sermonizing, but what are they going to do - come out for debauchery, chicanery and vice? They pay homage to virtue by their condemnation of Bennett, acknowledging that a standard for human conduct does exist, otherwise it wouldn't matter what he said or did.

Like all of us, Bill Bennett suffers from certain vices. But that does not override the virtues he has proclaimed.