Mark Souder and an American tradition: moralize, scandalize, apologize

By James A. Morone
Sunday, May 23, 2010

In 1845, America's most famous temperance crusader, John Gough, got caught dead drunk in a bordello. He responded with what would become the fallen Puritan's standard: I've shed "bitter tears of repentance." And besides, my enemies are at the bottom of this.

Scandal has long been an occupational hazard for moralizers. Last week, Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana, was the latest to be snared. Souder, a champion of family values and abstinence education, acknowledged an extramarital affair with an aide, Tracy Meadows Jackson. He quickly announced his resignation and -- following the familiar script -- said he was "ashamed" for having "sinned," and blamed the "poisonous environment of Washington" for his downfall.

Souder joins a long roster of lapsed Republican moralists who rode to power in part by preaching family values: Mark Foley (lewd text messages to House pages), Mark Sanford (mistress in Argentina), John Ensign (payoffs to the family of his former mistress), Larry Craig (wide stance in airport bathroom), House speaker-designate Bob Livingston (garden-variety affair) and the list goes on.

Of course, there are sinners on both sides of the aisle -- few falls from political grace have been quite as spectacular as those of Democrats John Edwards (child with a mistress) and Eliot Spitzer (Client No. 9).

You'd almost think Americans would be ready to concede the obvious -- that we are all imperfect -- and return our politicians' moral lapses to the realm of sad but private affairs. Well, that's not going to happen, and here's why.

Three different moralizing streaks run through American culture and history. The most powerful goes right back to the early Puritan settlers. Their idea was simple: Sinners impoverish themselves, diminish their communities and imperil America itself. President Ronald Reagan put it best, with a snippet mistakenly attributed to Tocqueville: "America is great because she is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."

The quote touches the heart of the matter: Lost virtue will lead to national decline. Whenever those fears recur -- and the fears of national decline have rarely been more powerful than they are today -- cries about moral decay proliferate. Lewd leaders become a marker of the terrible state we're in.

Republicans are so often ensnared in career-ending hypocrisies because they have seized with such vigor the sackcloth of the prophet Jeremiah, who warned the sinful Israelites to repent of their wicked ways. While the Puritan jeremiad has a long American legacy, the contemporary version first showed up during the Carter administration. Evangelicals, outraged about Roe v. Wade and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, roared onto the political scene, organized the Moral Majority, helped elect Reagan, basked in his approval ("You can't endorse me," he beamed to a convention of evangelicals in 1980, "but I endorse you") and rightfully shared the credit for the rising Republican dominance. Their continuing influence keeps the party lashed to its Puritan mast. And among the prominent neo-Puritans stood Souder himself.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), in turn, did not soften his judgment when he gave Souder the shove. His office said simply that Boehner holds party members to "the highest ethical standards."

A second moral tradition makes things still worse for our falling preachers by idealizing the leader who enters politics to do the right thing. The eternal model is George Washington, reluctantly accepting his duty to be commander of the Continental Army and then president of the new republic. Jimmy Stewart played the role a century and a half later in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Early Americans contrasted their leaders with the courtiers and aristocrats of the corrupted European monarchies. Today, the "tea party," for all its contradictions, taps right into this venerable way of thinking. The routing of incumbents in last week's primaries reverberates with the old contempt toward decadent political establishments.

As we keep hearing, government has lost touch with basic, popular virtues. Of course, the image of a frugal, honest, sober citizenry may stretch the facts, but in frightening times, the old myths take on new power.

For now, conservatives have seized on these two great moral traditions -- the Puritan and the republican. Meanwhile, there is an eerie silence on the left. Liberals no longer seem to relish the Puritans' fall. Perhaps that's because Democrats have lost touch with their own inner Jeremiahs.

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