Mark Sanford’s victory in the special South Carolina house race on Tuesday made for easy tweets about the hypocrisy of the South as the Bible Belt and the GOP as the party of traditional values.

mark sanford

Photo Illustration of Mark Sanford courtesy Charleston’s TheDigitel via Flickr (http://flic.kr/p/6SpBxG) *Note: This photo is an altered version of the original.

And there’s plenty of truth to that. Many Dixie evangelicals and Republican bible-thumpers are guilty of taking a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to personal morality, and that gap makes some uneasy. As the WaPo’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin put it:

Whether we are becoming a more libertarian or a libertine society is a matter of debate. But the real take-away is that Republicans talk a good game on “family values” but don’t take it all that seriously.

On the other hand, that’s always been the case, and it may not hurt the party that much when it comes to the ballot box. That’s because Southerners, at least, can talk a good game but they are profoundly realistic and pragmatic when it comes to politics.

As Slate’s John Dickerson put it in an excellent post-elex column, residents of the Palmetto State are — gasp — more like the French than they are like the Americans they say they want to be. Hence their affinity for a fellow like Newt Gingrich, who they picked over family man (one family, that is, and one wife) Mitt Romney:

South Carolina conservatives may still say a candidate’s sins matter, but they aren’t voting that way. In fact, if you weren’t privy to the state’s strong social conservative history, you could almost mistake South Carolinians for city folk—people who vote for experience, policy, and political leanings and show a sophisticate’s relativism toward personal moral failings. These days, South Carolinians seem almost Parisian when they enter the voting booth.

Indeed, if you want to find the kind of family values that Southern believers profess, don’t look to the South: those Red States have higher rates of social pathologies like divorce and out-of-wedlock births and such than the Blue States. As the New York Times conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, put it: “If you’re looking for solid marriages, head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.”

Or look to Democratic power couples who have survived infidelities, like the Clintons, the Spitzers, the Weiners, e.g.

But National Review’s Jonah Goldberg suggests those cases show that Democrats put politics above all else, and he insists that “conservatives still care more than liberals about maintaining the old standards.”

Yet the standards are changing, so Sanford’s sin wasn’t so bad, Goldberg writes:

I’m not condoning Sanford’s behavior — at all — but in the parade of horribles we’ve seen from politicians over the last 20 years, Sanford’s behavior is almost quaint. He fell in love with an age-appropriate woman. His formidable wife didn’t run to the stage to gaze admiringly and forgivingly at her disgraced husband to lessen the political damage. She kicked him to the curb and moved on with her life.

And South Carolina voters were right for voting for a Republican rather than a Democrat, even Stephen Colbert’s sister…

Which may be the real lesson here — namely, as Jason Zengerle catalogues at New York Magazine, Sanford was a really good politician. Elizabeth Colbert Busch was very nice and kind of appealing, but she was still a neophyte:

A first-time candidate who was already extremely guarded, once she took the lead, she tried to run out the clock, becoming even more on-message and walled-off. She spent the final weeks of the race surrounded by a coterie of aides (who shooed away reporters) and traveling through the district in a giant bus. Sanford, meanwhile, campaigned like he had nothing to lose. Just consider the two candidates’ schedules today, in the final hours of the race: Sanford made ten campaign stops; Colbert Busch voted and called it a day.

Still, ideals are good to have, standards are there to shoot for. And repentance ought to be real.

So count me with Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher as fans of John Profumo, an exemplar for Americans, from Britain, of all places:

John Profumo was the disgraced British cabinet minister who left public life (in 1963) humiliated by a famous sex scandal, and spent the rest of his life redeeming himself through selfless service to the poor.

And it was some serious service. Rod links to his 2006 obituary in The Telegraph. A taste:

Profumo’s transgression came when the Tories had been in power for 11 years. He was then a promising Secretary of State for War, married to the actress Valerie Hobson, star of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets and one of Britain’s leading actresses of stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s.

On June 5 1963 he resigned after admitting that he had lied to Parliament about his relationship with Christine Keeler, a call-girl who had been – separately – seeing the Russian naval attaché and spy, Yevgeny Ivanov. The Macmillan government never recovered from the scandal and, for that and other reasons, lost the General Election the following year.

Filled with remorse, Profumo never sought to justify himself or seek public sympathy. Instead, for the next four decades he devoted himself to Toynbee Hall, a charitable settlement at Spitalfields in the East End of London. He began by washing dishes, helping with the playgroup and collecting rents. Later he served with the charity’s council, eventually becoming its chairman and then president – the only other person to have held that office was Clement Attlee.

From his tiny office at Toynbee Hall, Profumo kept up a ceaseless flow of letters to anyone who might be able to speak, give money or do anything to assist the charity in its work of helping the poor and down-and-outs in the East End. Largely through his efforts, Toynbee Hall became a national institution.

Now that’s making something of your mistakes.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture, Ethics, Institutions, Politics

Beliefs: ,

David Gibson

David Gibson

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for RNS and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

2 Comments

  1. This is a helpful perspective and I too would like to see more Profumos. I think both sides have a hard time fully practicing what they preach. I wrote about it here: https://dyingsparrows.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/no-room-to-talk/.

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