Cover Story

Here we go again

The recent revelation of Focus on the Family radio host Mike Trout's marital infidelity has pundits pelting conservatives-and Christianity-again. Have two decades of clay-footed "celebrity conservatives" shattered the credibility of the "family values" movement? And can tough-minded actions restore some of it?

Issue: "Here we go again," Nov. 11, 2000

Bill Maher, talk-television's answer to Nero, recently fed another Christian to his panelist-lions. On Oct. 24, an aging Boy George, minor starlet Karen Duffy, and others batted the Mike Trout story around the studio-coliseum on Mr. Maher's late-night show Politically Incorrect. Mr. Trout, longtime co-host of Focus on the Family's flagship radio broadcast, last month resigned from the Colorado Springs-based ministry. A few days later he admitted to an "inappropriate relationship" with a woman not his wife.

"How come so many of these people who are supposedly the 'family people' get caught?" Mr. Maher carped as a knowing titter rippled through the studio audience. "I mean, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Henry Hyde, Strom Thurmond ... they get caught. Why? Why?"

PromiseVision vice president Bill Horn, the panel's token conservative that evening, gamely offered a defense: "Because people make mistakes and people are human ... [Mike Trout] made a mistake and he was man enough to resign...."

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Mr. Maher abruptly cut him off: "It's because they're 'pervs' to begin with and they try to cover it up by becoming Christians [and] Republicans. Those are 12-step programs for these people!"

Ugly, yes. But though he arrived at wrong conclusions, Mr. Maher was grappling in his own caustically comic way with a serious problem: the chain of hypocrisy among those who publicly preach family values, but privately poach in other people's families. The chain hamstrings innocent clergy, damages trusting laity, and, worst of all, tarnishes the image of Christ in the eyes of nonbelievers. In a media-saturated culture that emphasizes sins among Christians and conservatives, incidents of saying one thing and doing another overwhelm for many Americans any good impressions that might be created.

For example, what impression is created when Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a Southern Baptist minister elected to the Senate in 1996 after saying he would fight to stop the breakdown of the family, separates from his wife of 29 years in 1998, divorces her in 1999, and marries on Aug. 26, 2000, a former staff member who ran his Arkansas office in 1997 and 1998? Mr. Hutchinson's support in his home state has dropped. Appearances have political consequences: Gary Bauer, married for 27 years, saw his long-shot presidential campaign lose traction last year when he spent many hours in the company of an attractive, 27-year-old junior staffer. There is no evidence of any sexual misconduct on Mr. Bauer's part, but half of his disillusioned staff-including his personal secretary of 15 years-called it quits.

Among the first wrecking ball blows to the credibility of the conservative push for family values were the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. By then, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority had already forged a very public nexus between conservative Christianity and the Republican party. But in 1987, investigations revealed that some whom the public and press identified as part of the monolithic "Right" weren't so moral after all. A messy sex scandal swamped Jim Bakker, then leader of the PTL Club, who went to jail for defrauding PTL viewers of more than $150 million.

In 1988, photographs of Jimmy Swaggart in the company of a prostitute torpedoed his preaching empire. In 1992, Calvary Church of Santa Ana senior pastor David Hocking admitted to having committed "sexual sins" with a woman in his congregation. In 1993, Christian broadcaster Darrow Parker resigned after confessing to "personal failures and marital infidelity." The next year, People to People radio host Bob George pleaded no-contest to soliciting a prostitute.

Fast forward to 1997, when Rev. Henry J. Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., used his position to bilk businesses and philanthropic organizations out of more than $4 million. Marital infidelity brought down Mr. Lyons, convicted in March 1999 of grand theft and racketeering; the whole ugly business came to light when Mr. Lyons's wife burned down the $700,000 home Mr. Lyons bought with his alleged mistress.

But what radio commentator Michael Medved calls the "public saint, private sinner" problem is much wider than the church. Family-values hypocrisy also extends to public figures who, whatever their personal faith, in the public's eyes still share a moral code with Christians. Newt Gingrich, who often stumped for the importance of family and a national return to "core values," last year ended his own 18-year marriage to pursue the years-long affair he'd been carrying on with congressional aide Calista Bisek.

Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston would have replaced Mr. Gingrich as Speaker of the House, but late in 1998 he admitted to serial adultery and resigned from Congress. Skeletons in the closet tormented Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), and even elder statesman Henry Hyde, tagged by Salon with an adulterous liaison that occurred 30 years before he led the Clinton impeachment inquiry.

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