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Mark Souder's downfall shows virtue knows no ideology

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, May 24, 2010

A fall from grace of the sort experienced recently by Indiana's Mark Souder typically brings smiles to the faces of liberals weary of moralistic religious types who preach one thing and do another.

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But I took no pleasure in Souder's resignation from Congress last week after it was revealed that the conservative evangelical Republican had an affair with a part-time staffer. I always thought he was the real deal, both serious and thoughtful in his approach to religious and political questions. I disagreed with him on many things but not on everything.

I wrote about Souder for the first time in 1998 because he and Rep. Chaka Fattah, a liberal Democrat from Philadelphia, had pushed through legislation to help students from high-poverty schools go to college. I liked their forging a left-right alliance for a good cause at a moment when the nation was torn by the battle over Bill Clinton's impeachment. Souder said at the time: "Christ is concerned about the needy and the hungry and the powerless and the hurting." Good for him, I thought.

A few years later, I asked Souder to appear at an event with former New York governor Mario Cuomo where both reflected on the role of faith in their public lives. Their thoughts were later included in a book. "To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do," Souder said. "Either I am a Christian or I am not."

So I do hope that Souder finds a way to work out his redemption. But it is precisely because this story hits me personally that I want to shout as forcefully as I can to my conservative Christian friends: Enough!

Enough with dividing the world between moral, family-loving Christians and supposedly permissive, corrupt, family-destroying secularists.

Enough with pretending that personal virtue is connected with political creeds. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, and then insisting upon understanding after the failures of someone on your own side become known to the world. And enough with claiming that support for gay rights and gay marriage is synonymous with opposition to family values and sexual responsibility.

It's not the self-righteousness of religious conservatives that bothers me most. We liberals can be pretty self-righteous, too. It's the refusal to acknowledge that the pressures endangering the family do not come from some dark secular leftist conspiracy but from cultural and economic forces that affect us all. People are encouraged to put all sorts of things (career advancement, wealth, fame, the accumulation of things, various forms of self-indulgence) ahead of being good parents and spouses. Our workplaces are not as family-friendly as they could be.

Why does it even have to be said that a devotion to family has nothing to do with ideology? In my very liberal Maryland neighborhood -- 80 percent of my precinct voted for Barack Obama -- parents crowd school meetings, flock to their children's sporting events, help them with homework and teach them right from wrong based on values that I doubt differ all that much from those prevailing in more conservative environs. And while a lot of my neighbors are active in their religious congregations, the secular parents take their family responsibilities as seriously as the believers do.

And those of us who are liberal would insist that our support for the rights of gays and lesbians grows from our sense of what family values demand. How can being pro-family possibly mean holding in contempt our homosexual relatives, neighbors and friends? How much sense does it make to preach fidelity and commitment and then deny marriage to those whose sexual orientation is different from our own? Rights for gays and lesbians don't wreck heterosexual families. Heterosexuals are doing a fine job of this on their own.

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It's a scriptural passage that no doubt appeals to Mark Souder. But it would be lovely if conservative Christians remembered Jesus's words not only when needing a lifeline but also when they are tempted to give speeches or send out mailers excoriating their political foes as permissive anti-family libertines. How many more scandals will it take for people who call themselves Christian to rediscover the virtues of humility and solidarity?

ejdionne@washpost.com


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