As I write this, Jon King on CNN has just announced that New Gingrich has swept South Carolina, and swept the Evangelical vote as well. The fact that this victory comes in the immediate aftermath of the revelation that Newt had actively pursued an “open marriage” with his second wife and current mistress-spouse makes me think that social conservatism is basically finished in America. The larger agenda of the so-called “Christian Right” has been effectively whittled down to only two identifiable policy positions — opposition to gay marriage and abortion — which can now be tacked to the campaign of just about any immoral hack in order to receive a pass. No higher standards need apply.
Gingrich’s success in this most Bible Belty of southern states only seems surprising or shocking or hypocritical if one assumes Evangelicals actually take their faith as seriously as they loudly claim to, which of course all statistical evidence suggests they do not. Polls have argued Born-Agains divorce just as much, if not more, than the national average, and have crafted bafflingly inane scriptural logic to excuse this, a sin that Jesus was extraordinarily explicit in condemning. They’ve also largely made peace with sex before marriage, recreational sex, sodomy (the heterosexual kind, at least), contraception, and a fair bit of promiscuity and adultery, too. In short, Evangelicals neither hold nor practice sexual standards that are that different than the godless American mainstream, just as they have long since ceased to care one way or another about other old-timey sins such as gambling, immodest dress, swearing, and pornography (fun fact! Did you know Gingrich is considered a founding father of online porn?).
The Republicans’ stalwart opposition to gay marriage and abortion that pundits so eagerly attribute to Evangelical influence is really best understood as a sort of vestigial so-con tail on what is basically a libertarian-plutocrat party for libertarian-plutocrats who may or may not also happen to be Christians. With homosexuality becoming increasingly tolerated in Evangelical circles (for the obvious reason that it’s arbitrary and hypocritical to demonize same-sex relations in their own epoch of anything-goes bedroom morality) it’s hard to think that gay marriage bashing is really an issue with any long-term legs. As I discussed in my review of the seminal book No Right Turn, it’s almost impossible for a conservative Christian in modern America to not have at least one gay friend, relative, or co-worker, all of which makes it that much harder to be particularly animated by the threatening “otherness” of homosexuality.
Abortion, similarly, has always been much more of a science and ethics question than a strictly religious one, and as our ability to observe and study in-womb development becomes more vivid and revealing, will likely continue to be. The issue already transcends the standard left-right dynamic (even atheist Christopher Hitchens was pro-life on scientific grounds), and its strength as an issue of polarization has just as much to do with unrepresentatively radical pro-choicers exerting control over the Democratic Party as the Christian Right’s hegemony over the GOP.
The end result of all this is more politicians like Newt Gingrich. But more politicians like Romney and Obama too, who also would have failed religious litmus tests in earlier eras where genuine so-cons held actual sway. If the 2008 election was seen as some critical evaluation of how far Americans had come on the question of race, 2012 certainly deserves equal historic status for finally settling the age-old of whether or not flawed personal lives can be disqualifiers. The Democrats already made their position known some time ago, and now so too have the Republicans — their most religious, conservative faction and all. Case, evidently, closed.
Acceptance or indifference does not, however, automatically imply a lack of controversy. Whether or not we regard Gingrich’s many marriages — and the adulterous ways they ended — as particularly offensive or scandalous on some base, moral level, they do nevertheless imply a certain level of recklessness and arrogance that may be troubling in a purely secular sense. This is actually the great contradiction of liberalized politics: how does one pass judgement on serious personal misconduct without looking like a prude? The massive applause Gingrich received during Thursday’s debate for dressing-down Jon King’s “despicable” questions about the Speaker’s personal life revealed many Republicans are clearly swinging too far in the direction of self-righteous ambivalence, even if that entails nominating a true joke of a candidate in the process. They’re so over sex scandals they’ll make their flag-bearer a man who’s had so many he makes half the country’s skin crawl.
Whether we like it or not, elections are still about more than just ideas, and politicians are more than empty vessels who spout them. Personal trustworthiness, reliability, competence, maturity, and focus remain qualities as desired as fiscal responsibility or international knowledge, but also remain traits that are hard to measure through anything but a person’s decidedly human characteristics — including how they’ve handled themselves in trying private moments. In other words, it’s Newt’s cruel and egomaniacal conduct in handling his affairs that’s actually more worrying and revealing than the affairs themselves, and the single largest reason even a secular, liberal media can keep hammering him over it. And why they will eventually hammer him straight out of the race in the unlikely event he somehow bamboozles his way through the rest of the primaries.
Perhaps someday we’ll learn to transcend even this, and declare absolutely everything about politicians’ personalities off limits for judgement, just as we have for race, gender, religion, and (now) personal misbehaviour. But I’d be curious to know what kind of America that would be.