Now that John Edwards has admitted to his affair with 42-year-old Rielle Hunter, the big test looms again before the American public: Do we care? Do we think it matters? Do we believe that there should be any code of conduct or moral standard for those in public office, even if it is the highest one in the land?
Justifications for political improprieties abound. There are historical ones: "Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, etc. had moral failures, so what's the big deal?" There are also personal ones: "We shouldn't judge. No one is perfect. Who are we to point fingers?"
Don't misunderstand me. I believe in personal redemption. I myself have experienced it, as I wrote about in the chapter "A sin that became a blessing" in my autobiography, "Against All Odds," in which I discuss an adulterous one-night stand in the early '60s that resulted in my wonderful daughter Dina. That is why I hope, as he says, John Edwards truly has asked God and his wife for forgiveness, and I pray for their restoration and the long road that results from it.
But then again, John Edwards continues to minimize his culpability by playing linguistic and moral dodge ball. He lied to his closest colleagues and the public for nearly two years about the affair. And even in his confession last week, he doesn't call it a "lie," a "sin," an "affair" or "adultery." Rather, he repeatedly calls it merely a "mistake" or a "serious error in judgment." Is that all it is?
I believe leadership should be above reproach. I believe those who govern should lead also in civility and decency and that their character should be congruent with their call to office. Like parents to children, a nation's politicians' integrity and character should supersede its citizens. But as long as we the people tolerate leadership immorality and elect corrupt politicians, we cannot expect the heart and character of our nation to improve.
It fascinates me that American naturalization law incorporates "good moral character" as a prerequisite for citizenship but no such legal standard is expected of those who govern our citizens. In a post-Clinton era, government trysts seem to be the rule more than the exception. Immorality is not only tolerated but also expected among public servants now. Have we at last severed or totally compartmentalized their personal and political lives so that never the twine should meet?
Enduring public humiliation is not the only price a political leader should pay for improprieties; I think they should be disciplined and suspended, if not disposed from public service. The consequence of corruption also should be increased restrictions, if not a banning from certain areas of future public service. If one cannot properly handle his private affairs, can we truly expect him to handle political ones? If politicians can't rightly steward the duties and offices granted to them, then they should be removed and kept from the public trust. As Christians, we should be abundant in forgiveness; but as Americans too, we should be diligent in protecting political trusts from those who do or might abuse them.
To help restore national civility and decency is just one of many reasons I wrote my new book, "Black Belt Patriotism," which will be released Sept. 7 and is available at Amazon.com for pre-order. During the next few weeks, I'll give a few sneak peeks at its contents in my column.
With the Edwards affair and political integrity again hot in the news, here is just a taste of what I say in the section "The basis for morality and civility":
"Whatever happened to decency, respect, and fair play? Remember when a handshake was the only contract that was needed in negotiations? Whatever happened to the days when fourteen-year-olds (like the young George Washington) set themselves to learn and write out freehand by their own volition the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (a book written by Jesuits for the instruction of young gentlemen)?
"Good morals precede good laws, which is why government isn't much help. Unless the people and their legislators are grounded in morality, the best of laws will be broken and the worst of laws will be made, legalizing immorality. We can't look to government to improve decency, civility, and morality. For that we need to look to another source.
"John Adams put it well when he said: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.' …
"Our Founders had a better answer than government or even education. God is the answer. God is the moral compass of America. Or He should be, if we ever want to restore morality in our homes and civility to our land. Our Founders believed morals flowed from one's accountability to God, and that, without God, immoral anarchy would result."