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Why the left misjudges GOP sex scandals

As in Sanford's case, what matters to the Christian right is not so much the behavior of their leaders as the repentance they show after their fall from grace.

By Nicole Hemmer, Neil J. Young / July 8, 2009

Evansville, Ind.; and Princeton, N.J.

Google "Mark Sanford" and "hypocrite" and prepare to sort through some 53,000 results, many from liberal websites reveling in the story of yet another family-values Republican yielding to temptations of the flesh.

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But liberal glee at such scandal will be short-lived if the left continues to misjudge conservatives' reaction to their fallen heroes.

When a Republican affair is exposed, the left seems to assume that the religious right, with the exacting moral standards it tends to laud, will have one less general leading its "pro family" brigade.

But practice shows us otherwise. While for Democrats, adultery often leads to ruined or constrained careers – think Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards – Republican adulterers from Newt Gingrich to David Vitter have lived to see another political day, still championing their hard-line conservative positions.

Their survival isn't in spite of the GOP's evangelical base, but rather because of it. And while liberals tend to see continued support as hypocrisy from both the politician and his supporters, what matters to conservative Republicans is not so much the behavior of their leaders as the repentance they show after their fall from grace.

In the rambling announcement of his affair, Mr. Sanford said little about politics and a lot about his faith. At times he sounded like a preacher expounding on the nature of God's law, of self, and of sin.

Sanford's remarks drew little praise, categorized even by sympathetic sources as "disjointed" and "just plain bizarre." Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist with little affection for the politics of the Christian right, evaluated his statement this way: "Spiritually, Sanford may have succeeded in checking off several acts of contrition. But politically he did everything wrong...."

But Ms. Parker, like Sanford's critics on the left, fails to understand the mechanics of Christian conservatism: By getting it spiritually right, Sanford is well on his way to getting it politically right.

Last summer, another scandal threatened to derail the Republicans' moral majority train. When Gov. Sarah Palin announced her teenage daughter, Bristol, was pregnant, many liberals mocked the hockey mom for having to face the consequences of her abstinence-only educational advocacy.