WASHINGTON -- One of the least attractive things about Homo sapiens is their habit of creating entertainment from the suffering of others. Hangings once were public spectacles, part carnival, part moral lesson. The modern equivalent is the political sex scandal.
The latest, though by no means the worst, concerned former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, who admitted an affair with a staffer and resigned from office. Souder, a social conservative who supported abstinence education, was jeered for hypocrisy. There was a moment of national mirth. Then Souder packed up his office and left town. The carnival moved on.
My problem is, I know Mark Souder. Years ago, he was my first boss on Capitol Hill, when we both worked for Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. I found Mark to be deeply religious, highly intelligent and slightly neurotic. The answer to any question was likely to be detailed, exhaustive and lengthy. When we first met, Mark was charged with giving me an overview of Indiana politics. He paused a moment, then began, "Let me start with the glaciers ... "
And Mark was decent to me. Not long after I started working there, my father died suddenly. Mark drove from Washington to Atlanta to attend the funeral. I won't forget.
Mark later became a thoughtful congressman, carving out a serious role on drug policy. He did his job with care and stubborn integrity. He was not a bright-burning political meteor, but he was the kind of man worth having in the House.
So what does sexual conduct have to do with the qualifications for public service? It is the question raised by the cases of politicians such as John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. In practice, we make certain distinctions. There is a difference between breaking a vow out of weakness and smashing it out of malice. Sexual behavior can reveal our shared foolishness. Or it can reveal coldness, compulsion, cruelty, exploitation, arrogance and recklessness. Who can deny that these traits of character are potentially dangerous in a political leader?
But while sexual conduct is not irrelevant, it is also not everything. I have known politicians who are cold, arrogant, reckless -- and faithful to their spouses. And I have known politicians who have been unfaithful and served the public well.
Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity, and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."
Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.
What we really need is to combine high moral standards with humility. When "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was first published, the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to a friend: "You are certainly wrong about Hyde being overdrawn; my Hyde is worse." In every life -- apart from saints and psychopaths -- there is a chasm between our intentions and our conduct. All human journeys are part pilgrimage, part farce. Whenever we mock moral shoddiness, laziness and frailty, we mock into a mirror.
This recognition should lead toward the most underrated of the moral virtues: mercy. Yes, people are baser than their highest ideals. They are also nobler than their worst moments. This does not make the distinction between base and noble impossible. But it makes a little grace appropriate.