With Herman Cain's announcement that he was suspending his presidential campaign because of the charges of sexual harassment and of a 13-year affair, issues are raised that the country would do well to think through. The two most obvious are whether we should care about a politician's sexual life and how much the press should report about these matters.
But there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed first: What does adultery tell us about a person? For many Americans, the answer is: "Pretty much all we need to know." This certainly seems to be the case with regard to presidential candidates. The view is expressed this way: "If he can't keep his vows to his wife, how can we trust him to keep his vows to his country?"
I am a religious conservative, but I know this statement has no basis in fact. It sounds persuasive, but it is a non sequitur. We have no reason to believe that men who have committed adultery are less likely to be great leaders or that men who have always been faithful are more likely to be great leaders. To religious readers, I point to God Himself, who apparently thought that King David deserved to remain king — and even have the Messiah descend from him — despite a particularly ugly form of adultery (sending Bathsheba's husband into battle where he would assuredly be killed).
And while on the subject of leadership, another question for religious and/or conservative readers who believe that a man who sexually betrays his wife will likely betray his country: Who would you prefer for president? A pro-life conservative who had had an affair, or a pro-choice man of the left who had always been faithful to his wife?
Jimmy Carter, to the best of our knowledge, has been faithful to his wife throughout their long marriage. That is certainly commendable. Did it make him in any way a better president? Has it given moral acuity to the man who wrote a book equating democratic Israel with apartheid South Africa?
And the American who, perhaps singlehandedly, may have prevented inter-racial war in America, Martin Luther King Jr., committed adultery on a number of occasions.
Would John F. Kennedy, a serial adulterer while in the White House, have been any different a president were he faithful?
Just knowing that a man or a woman had extramarital sex may tell us nothing about the person. I have always wanted to know: Why is sexual sin in general and adultery in particular the one sin that many religious people regard as defining a person as well as almost unforgiveable?
Nothing here is in any way meant to be a defense of adultery. As a religious Jew, I believe it violates one of the Ten Commandments. As a married person, I know how much it would hurt my wife and how much it would hurt me if the other had an affair. But marriage is too complex an arena to draw any immediate conclusions about a person. Are we to label a man who takes loving care of his chronically ill wife and who has a discreet affair no more than an adulterer who merits disdain and mistrust? Is a woman who stays in an emotionally abusive marriage for the sake of her children someone with little integrity because she sought to be held in another man's loving arms? The questions and nuances are innumerable.
And what is adultery? Women have called my show to tell me that a man who gets a lap dance has committed adultery. Others go further — merely attending a strip show, or looking at Playboy, is adultery. To my mind, this is emotion — not reason, morality or religion — talking. Yes, many Christians cite Jesus as saying that a man who lusts after a woman other than his wife has committed adultery with his heart. But he made it clear that this is adultery (SET ITAL) with his heart (END ITAL). Jesus, the practicing and knowledgeable Jewish rabbi, would never equate actual adultery with adultery with one's heart. And if someone believes the two are morally identical, why not start asking candidates if they have ever lusted for any woman other than their wife?
In choosing a president of the United States, adultery would greatly matter to me is if it were engaged in indiscreetly. I don't trust the integrity or conscience of a man or woman who publicly humiliates his or her spouse.
Beyond that, I do not want to know anything about the sexual life of any candidate. Media reporting or questioning about candidates' sexual lives constitutes a form of hypocrisy so deep that the English language does not have a word for it. Media people report on the sexual lives of candidates — for virtually any public office — on the grounds that since these politicians have great power, the public needs to know all about them. Yet, they offer no insight into their own sexual lives, even though some in the news media are far more powerful than almost any politician except the president of the United States. If we cannot trust a candidate who committed adultery, then why can we trust a news reporter or editor who has committed adultery?
The only thing this preoccupation with candidates' sexual lives has achieved is to ensure that some of the best, brightest, finest and most honest men in America never run for office.