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Edwards: Is Marital Fidelity Strictly Personal?

I have posted before on the sex scandals involving Larry Craig and David Vitter. Now with the admission of infidelity by John Edwards, we have yet another sex scandal.

One response, as is often the case with marital infidelity, is to claim that this is strictly a personal issue, one between him and his wife. And the spouse is certainly the primary person who is wronged. If John Edwards (or David Vitter or Larry Craig before him) were private individuals, their deeds would be a private matter to be settled privately. (One must note that unlike Edwards, so far as I know, both Craig and Vitter violated laws, while Edwards violated only his marriage vows.)

But Edwards is a public person, who has sought public office multiple times. He does not claim that marriage vows are temporary or optional. In public he portrays a family man. I don’t think infidelity in that case is strictly personal. Whether or not one fulfills one’s vows is of paramount importance in judging integrity.

I have certain standards for sexual morality. I claim to be moderate, am regularly called liberal, but my personal standards are rather old fashioned. I believe in marital faithfulness. I don’t believe in pre-marital sex. If I violate those standards it should (and doubtless would) have an impact on the way people regard me as a Christian teacher and leader in my church.

But both in and outside of the church we seem to have accepted a curiously bipolar attitude toward sexual sins. On the one hand we are scandalized and yell and scream about them a great deal. On the other, we excuse them in practice. I can find few people in churches, for example, who will say they believe that premarital or extramarital sex is OK, but when it is practiced, the consequences are quite limited unless the person is a very public figure.

It seems as thought we know it’s wrong, but we also know that we are weak, and think “there but for the grace of God go I.” This is similar to early problems in dealing with drunk driving. Police, judges, and juries so often knew that they were guilty of the same thing from time to time, and were aware that they might just as well have been the defendant, so they went easy on what was regarded as a human weakness. Mothers Against Drunk Driving waged quite a campaign to make driving under the influence a truly shameful deed before it was treated as seriously as it deserved. (You’ll still find some cases where good old boys let one another off on this one.)

Marital infidelity, of course, doesn’t kill as many people as does driving under the influence. But when one gets married, one does make a commitment, and normally that commitment is for life. If you can make a commitment “until death do us part” and then casually violate it, it says something about your integrity. When you cover it up, it not only says something about your integrity, I believe it is morally corrosive. You become practiced at lying.

I believe that a willingness to ignore one covenant, that of marriage, is a significant factor in deciding whether the person in question will be faithful to another covenant, for example, the oath of office. Will the person who swore to be faithful to his wife, and then strayed while covering it up regard the oath to “uphold and defend the constitution of the United States” any more seriously?

In an atmosphere where lies and half-truths are so common, it may seem very odd to make a big deal out of this one particular issue. But I would suggest that if we drop out of the search for integrity simply because so many people have failed to provide it, we will continue to enable our politicians to become less and less honest with us.

I do not believe marital fidelity is strictly personal when it is committed by a person seeking the trust of others. Violation of a lifetime vow is a very bad indicator of personal integrity.

PS: I commend the mainstream media for waiting for confirmation on this one. I rarely find them commendable, but they did much better than average here.

Crossposted to RedBlueChristian.com.

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  1. Hi Henry,

    I don’t know that I agree. We’ve discussed this before, of course. In particular, I don’t think lifetime vows are a good measure of integrity at all. “I’m never going to drink again.” “I’m never going to do drugs again.” Is someone necessarily dishonest or untrustworthy if they can’t live up to that commitment? If, after 20 years, they break that vow?

    “Forever” is a very long time. And people change. At least, the goods ones do. Because life is complicated — some of the things you think and believe when you one age you don’t think and believe when you are older.

    There are countries where turning away from your faith is a capital offense, predicated on exactly the same kind of thought. You promised to believe it forever. But what happens if you change your mind? What happens if your beliefs changes? Does that make you a bad person?

    “I promise to be faithful to one person forever.” Commendable, sure. Ideal, sure. But probably naive. Who can really contemplate the full weight of something that will last maybe 3 times longer than they have already lived, maybe 6 times longer than they can accurately remember? When hormones are blurring rationality?

    I think integrity is a whole lot more complicated than a check list of vows kept. For me, that he cheated on her isn’t that big of a deal. That he *lied* to her about it, is a significantly larger issue for me, because that *does* usually go to integrity. But, still, reasoning can be complicated there, too.

    I’ve had to break my word, on occasion — things I thought I could do that I just couldn’t live up to. Not this one in particular, but others that were of equal importance to me. Does that make me a bad person? Untrustworthy? Or did it just make the original promise a matter of hubris?

    Life is complicated, and things change. His actions have consequences, all on their own: he has hurt people he probably cares about and he has damaged his reputation, his ability to get things done in the world. Do we really have condemn him, too? For being human?


    1. First of all, “condemn” is a very strong word. Edwards doesn’t know me from… well, Eve, I guess, but anyway.

      I see no personal invective here; it boils down to choosing who gets elected. Like voting history and political party and experience, marital fidelity is one more bean in the pile that helps each voter sort between candidates.

      Second, I don’t know that Henry is saying it’s an either/or issue (either you’re trustworthy or you’re not). I mean, someone who cheated on his wife once and didn’t after that is more trustworthy than someone who repeatedly cheats and apologizes and promises it won’t happen again but it does, but less trustworthy than someone who stays faithful.

      Finally, there’s also something to be said about preparing for temptation. My husband and I trust each other a lot, but we do NOT trust each other to remember things – we’re both rather cotton-brained! And so we’ve each developed coping strategies (I write things on the back of my left hand in pen) to help us in difficult situations. When considering political candidates, this (IMO) is less of a moral issue and more of a practical one.

      1. I think the level of statement I am looking for is something like “is a significant factor in determining one’s reliability.” And you also make good points about the person who makes a mistake once and then straightens up versus the person who is doing things repeatedly.

        This kind of judgment is not easy, but as voters we have to decide, and I regard marital fidelity as an indicator. Not the only one, but it definitely is one.

  2. What gets me about the whole thing is that so many people seem to be asking “why did he lie about it?” Well, of course he would lie about it. Whenever anyone does something that they believe is wrong, is sinful, they will try to pretend that they haven’t done it. Most people I know need to be “caught in sin” before they are at a place where they are ready to move past that sin.

    But, if Edwards is telling the truth about talking about this with his wife back in 2006, then there is something powerful about that. If he didn’t get caught, but came to her with his infidelity, confessed it, and began to work on healing their relationship (in private, away from the media), then I truly believe that he is a better man than most who are caught in unfaithfulness.

    Of course, we don’t know that this is the truth. This is the way that the Edwards’ are telling it now, but he has been lying about this to the public for some time. But if it is the case, perhaps what we see is actually not as horrible as it first seemed.

  3. I think I am having a bit of a problem communicating precisely what I want to say in this post. I do not regard this incident as either “not that big of a deal” as Chris suggests, nor as “horrible” as Pastor Gavin suggests.

    I don’t think marital unfaithfulness is an unforgivable sin. What I do think is that it is one indicator of a person’s integrity. Many people are faithful in marriage in the sense that we don’t actually have affairs. I suspect most of us fall short if we take the words of Jesus about “looking on a woman to lust after her.” I also think that we cannot afford to treat this as unimportant.

    Indeed, if Edwards discussed this with his wife earlier, I regard that as a good thing. I also don’t expect him to go out and announce it to the press. But once he is asked, if he lies, I consider that another indicator.

    1. Hi Henry,

      In the general case, I guess I look at it this way: of all the world leaders in history, if you take those who were faithful to their spouses and those who weren’t, and you line up their records as leaders, I think you’ll find very few solid conclusions on this matter.

      I doubt your current President has ever cheated on his wife, but he has systematically dismantled checks and balances against his power, and either misrepresented the truth or outright lied about things that matter. Nixon, similarly so. Carter never did either. Clinton went the opposite way. There’s no correlation here.

      What I’m trying to say with all of this is that Christians seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against marital infidelity in their political leaders: they *assume* someone who cheats on eir spouse shouldn’t be elected, while someone who is faithful is a better bet. I think the reality is that the two variables have *nothing* to do with each other. And clinging to a false correlation is a bad thing that results in bad decisions.

      I have no problem saying marital infidelity is bad: you made a promise to somebody who trusted you and you violated that trust. Clearly, a bad thing. But extrapolating from there to “bad leader” seems an awfully big leap, especially given history.


  4. After watching and listening to the story, what is most bothersome about the incident is the level of hypocrisy that John Edwards has chosen to surround himself with. The sexual violation in and of itself is a personal failing. It sounds like he took some steps to deal with it within his own family. But if you read the criticism he heaped on Bill Clinton at the time of his scandal, you have to wonder why he thought lying about his own failing in public as Bill Clinton did was the right course of action.

    Secondly, if you set aside the moral issue and look practically at the political issue, a sex scandal when allowed to fester is more or less devastating to a political candidate. What is bothersome to me is that John Edwards willingly accepted a lot of campaign funds from people all over the country who believed in his message and believed that he could execute the office of presidency, all while John had the full knowledge that the sex scandal was eventually going to get rooted out.

    As you point out Henry, it’s not necessarily the sexual sin here, but the compilation of actions that indicate an overall lack of integrity. If people are giving me literally millions of dollars to run for President, I think the least I could do is be honest about an indiscretion if asked.

    The last point that bothers me is that for a (fairly long) time the story was being pushed by a “less than reputable” tabloid. And John Edwards repeatedly told people to ignore the story because it came from such a source. Here he is arguing precisely that integrity matters in that the National Inquirer has no integrity so you can’t believe them. So he calls on people to use integrity as a standard when all the while, he is exhibiting a complete lack of integirty. What did he think would happen when his own standards where applied to him?

  5. It’s interesting that you put sex before marriage in the same category as marital infidelity (if I’m reading you right, anyway).

    I’d tend to agree that the infidelity is not the best commentary on someone’s reliability. But sex before marriage doesn’t (necessarily) involve any breaking of promises, so I wouldn’t see it as a negative indicator in the same way.

    I’m a tad worried because I personally can’t see any problem with having a sexual relationship with someone I respected, even though I’m not married to them. If there’s any serious potential for moral corrosion here, please let me know before I find anyone who’ll take me up on that.

    1. Let me make a distinction–my personal stand is against sex before marriage. I do not regard it as a lack of integrity for someone who does not believe there is a problem to have sex without marriage, because, as you say, no promises are broken. I would only argue that in the context of Christian spiritual life, not as a rule for secular society, however.

      I would view it differently if someone preached against extra-marital sex and then lived that way, but that is another matter.

      The integrity issue here is with vowing one thing and doing another.

  6. I don’t think infidelity is a deal-breaker, but it’s definitely a factor I consider when voting. It’s not just the dishonesty/broken vows, but the lack of self-control! Someone who aspires to a leadership role should be held to a higher standard. If he can’t control himself sexually, how do I know he can control himself with regard to the many other temptations that go along with power?

    But as for “I commend the mainstream media for waiting for confirmation on this one. I rarely find them commendable, but they did much better than average here.” I really do have to disagree. They absolutely do not treat both parties equally – just weeks ago the NY Times published unfounded speculation, quickly debunked, about McCain’s supposed affair with someone and yet the Enquirer had FAR more evidence against Edwards and they wouldn’t touch it with a ten meter cattle prod. If they treated everyone equally, I would commend them. As it is, it’s simply naked partisanship and as such it’s disgraceful.

  7. Laura, remember that McCain is still running for office, while Edwards is not (well, maybe AG, but that only requires convincing 52 people, not 70 million). I’m not excusing the NYT (though I think the real story there was McCain’s ties to lobbyists, which was overshadowed by the unfortunate insinuation of infidelity; plus let’s not forget McCain’s actual infidelities to his first wife: the story that seems under-commented on in the media is actually years old, how McCain cheated on his first wife with his current wife while wife #1 was sick/injured; how does that story affect one’s view of McCain’s integrity?), but I find it hard to claim preferential treatment of a particular party when there is such a disparity between the two people. If Edwards had won the nomination and the media was as anemic in tracking this down, then you would have a case. If you don’t think that there is an objective reason for the media to scrutinize McCain much more than Edwards at this point, then you yourself have lost all sense of balance and instead are relying on sheer partisanship.

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