Columnists > Soul Food

Mix & match morality

There has never been a "bad man" / "good statesman"

Issue: "Y2K: Binary blowout?," Aug. 22, 1998

Most Americans say that Mr. Clinton is lying through his teeth about his various scandals, yet most go on to say that he is doing a good job as president. What could they be thinking? Through diligent listening I've compiled some possibilities.

  • Who am I to judge?
  • Everyone lies about sex.
  • All I care about is the economy.
  • The other politicians are just as bad.
  • If his wife can put up with it, so can I.
  • I'm so disgusted I've stopped paying attention.
  • A president like that makes me feel better about myself. Have these thoughts any common thread? Yes: They all express the idea that character doesn't count-that you can be a bad man and yet a good statesman. I doubt that many people swallow that notion whole. But they do tend to swallow a big part of it-the belief that you can be a bad man in some ways, yet a good statesman. In the president's case, the exception is lewdness and lechery. Underlying this belief is a fallacy that is rife not only in public but in private life: The Pick and Choose Delusion. We believe that we can pick and choose our sins; persistent disobedience to God in one area of life leaves the others unaffected. This delusion is like thinking, "I'm not going to do anything about my cancer. After all, it's only in my lymph glands!" The truth is that we cannot pick and choose our sins. Untreated by repentance, disobedience to God spreads from organ to organ until it reaches the heart. To illustrate, let's consider just one kind of sin, following just a few of its effects as they spread through the personality. To make the illustration more helpful, let's consider the sin which our generation considers the most harmless: illicit sex. Deadening. Sex is unparalleled in its ability to unite opposites; according to Scripture, it makes man and woman "one flesh." By attaching and tearing loose, attaching and tearing loose, you build up scar tissue and deaden your capacity for intimacy. Incompleteness. God could have made just one sex; instead he made two, each of which longs for completion by the other. Promiscuity turns them from helpmates into adversaries. Without the influence of the other, the finest things in each go sour. What might have been lordly turns cruel; what might have been nurturant, petty. Deception. Everyone knows that adultery means deception. Less known is that so does premarital sex. In one study, 80 percent of the women but only 12 percent of the men expected to marry their partner. It takes a lot of lying to keep that sort of thing going. Exploitation. To lie is to break trust. The more you break trust, the more breaking trust becomes part of your character. In every tough spot, your first impulse is to cheat. At first you cheat only your sexual partners, but pretty soon every relationship glows with the lurid colors of exploitation: with kids, with boss, with country. Moral insanity. Something else happens when you lie all the time: You begin to lose track of when you're lying and when you're not. Before long you can't tell at all. You are lost in a maze of your making, in only fitful contact with reality, unable to see the difference between how things are and how you said they are. Dehumanization. Marital sex humanizes you, because by your openness to the gift of children you connect yourself with past and future generations. By contrast, promiscuous sex empties out your humanity and makes you like the animals, who have neither history nor hope. Selfishness. In marital sex you love someone genuinely "other" with all your body and soul; promiscuous sex is merely self-love with another body. To take one of the most powerfully outward-directed impulses in your nature and warp it back inward is to cripple your ability to care about anything outside yourself. Murder. According to our generation, irresponsible sex is the sin that "doesn't hurt anyone." Twenty-five years after Roe vs. Wade we should know better; to normalize incontinence we had to normalize murder. Now we are paying for that blindness with more blindness, because to normalize one kind of murder we're normalizing others. Next on the list is euthanasia. No man can pick and choose his sins, because sin is never satisfied. Like the fire, it spreads; like the leech, it devours. Does character count? You bet. The "bad man but good statesman" never existed and never will.

    J. Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.

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