What we expect of ourselves, what we expect of our leaders

The subject, once again, is sexual temptation. We Americans have already heard sad tales about Marine guards in Moscow and about television evangelist Jim Bakker. Now comes Gary Hart's alleged dalliances with more than one woman. The bones of that story have been pretty well picked. The propriety of reporters' staking out an all night watch, the relevance of a candidate's private life as a gauge of fitness for public office, and the question of whether the voters have received a full explanation of what really happened - all have been well chewed over, though unanswered questions remain on every front.

Of more significance, however, is the context into which the Hart story has swirled: the current state of American sexual morality.

For the past 20 years, after all, the nation has been backpedaling away from the institution of marriage. People still marry. But unmarried cohabitation (which used to be called ``living in sin'') no longer raises many eyebrows. Even adultery is frequently shrugged aside by a society whose married members (according to some polls) engage in it in substantial numbers. Recent studies suggest that marriage may be coming back into favor. But the trends also show a society increasingly tolerant of sexual license.

How can we account, then, for the righteous wrath that descends upon the heads of those who embody in public life the very trends we refuse to criticize in private? Why, back when marriage was honored and adultery frowned upon far more severely than today, were presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy able to escape public exposure on charges of adultery, which history has pinned on them? Why have we suddenly become so sensitive to the issue? Why has this new, cool tolerance we're expected to show for extramarital sexual activity not been extended to such public figures as Gary Hart?

Here are some possible explanations:

We're a nation of rank hypocrites, blind to our own failings but eager to cast the first stone at others.

We're a nation so accustomed to the X-rated flick and the Playboy mentality that we relish every morsel of lurid detail - especially when newspapers publish them under the guise of serious news.

The evidence of declining support for marriage is wrong, and the nation (despite a fringe of cohabitors and brazen adulterers) is still fundamentally devoted to marriage.

We are longing for moral standards we no longer possess but yearn to see expressed in those larger-than-life figures that we expect to occupy pulpits, presidencies, and other places of power.

I distrust the first three explanations. I think, at bottom, that Americans are fundamentally honest - and that, especially among the young, there remains a keen sensitivity to what Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger's ``Catcher in the Rye,'' called ``the phony.'' Nor do I think that Americans have sold out to porn. And while I agree that there are plenty of sound marriages, it seems clear that those who insist on the right to sexuality outside of marriage are highly influential. Marriage, while still practiced, is less vigorously defended than it once was. The majority, lacking a clear sense of the value of marriage - or lacking the moral courage to address the challenges facing modern family life - hasn't spoken out against those things that would corrode the relations between the sexes.

Does that produce a sense of guilt - as a lack of moral courage often does? Does that guilt take form in an unconscious longing to recapture a lost Eden, to return to an age of innocence? Does it lash out doubly at those we expect will lead us back to goodness but who stumble along the way - making them (to borrow a concept from our Judeo-Christian heritage) scapegoats for our own missteps? Is Gary Hart that scapegoat?

None of this is meant to exonerate public officials from improprieties. It is simply meant to expand the spotlight from the podium to the audience. The fact that that audience is sending conflicting signals - brushing off sexual license as unworthy of notice in most cases, and then suddenly holding its candidates for public office accountable on that topic as never before - suggests an astonishingly deep confusion on the issue.

Is that a good sign? I think it is. It may suggest that we are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the kind of distrust, self-centeredness, and failure of commitment that adultery entails. It may be that, far below the lasciviousness of modern advertising and the prurience of contemporary humor, there is growing recognition that nations are made up of families, that families are dependent upon fidelity, and that no one who does not grasp the relation between marriage, fidelity, and family is fit to lead a nation.

A Monday column

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