In the eyes of the media, Mark Sanford has committed the unpardonable social sin. No, not adultery—is that even frowned upon anymore?—but the sin of being a hypocrite.
For example, the inexplicably popular Rachel Maddow of MSNBC had a segment on her show last night on Sanford’s ‘Hypocrisy Rap Sheet’:
You know, it wasn’t just prostitutes that sank Elliot Spitzer’s career. It was the combination of the gung-ho law-and-order profile plus the prostitutes. It wasn’t just a wide stance in a men’s room that sank Larry Craig’s career. It was the wide stance, plus the anti-gay holier-than-thou traditional values public record. And for Sen. John Ensign now, even before you get to the ethical issues of his mistress and her family all being on and off the Ensign and Republican party payroll, it is likely to be his demands that other people resign because of their sexual affairs that will sink Sen. Ensign for his sexual affairs. It’s do as I say, not as I do, and it really really never works.
By his own admission, Sanford is guilty of being an adulterer and a louse. And he may be a hypocrite if he expected others to resign from their positions yet refuses to do so himself. But as Maddow’s segment makes clear, it is not his refusal to to resign that makes him, in her eyes, a hypocrite but rather that he criticized others for a moral failing that he himself would later commit.
Sanford may very well turn out to be guilty of hypocrisy if he refuses to resign. But he is repeatedly being refereed to as a hypocrite for the wrong reasons by people who are apparently ignorant about what hypocrisy is.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines hypocrisy as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.” The British literary critic William Hazlitt once explained, “He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves”
By all appearances, Sanford does indeed believe in marital fidelity. His failures so far are due to his behaving in a way that does not comport with those values; a matter not of hypocrisy but of moral inconsistency. Such consistency is essential—particularly for democratically elected representatives—for establishing and maintaining trust. This is why private behavior has such public implications. The marital infidelity of a elected officials strong signal they are untrustworthy: If a man cannot be trusted to keep a sacred vow to an intimate, how can I trust him to keep his word to me, a stranger?
What we should expect of an elected official is that they be a person of integrity—that their character be a morally consistent whole. A person who is free of contradictory ethical impulses and actions is more likely to behave in a manner that is trustworthy. Even if we disagree with their views, we can deduce how they will act and make our judgments about them accordingly.
Sanford believes that there is an objective moral standard and that his sin (his word) was a result of his external actions being inconsistent with his internal beliefs. Many of his detractors, however, believe that because all moral standards are subjective and internal, behavior can’t be objectively immoral, it can only be inconsistent. For people like Maddow, Sanford’s flaw is not that he acted immorally, but that he expected others to adhere to a standard that he himself failed to keep.
This view of integrity is regrettably common, particularly among elites and the media. I have yet to see a news story that agreed with Sanford that his described his actions as sinful. Instead, most of them, like Maddow, do not condemn him for breaching the sacred bonds of marriage but only for appearing to have a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude.
Some would argue that journalists don’t use morally and theologically loaded terms such as sin. This is true to a point. Journalists do tend to refrain from using objective moral terminology in favor of subjective standards of internal inconsistency. A libertarian who advocated for the legalization of prostitution would not be condemned for being caught in a brothel. A social conservative who claimed to stand for families, on the other hand, would be charged with committing the grave offense of hypocrisy.
The problem is not with pointing out moral inconsistency, which can aid a person in readjusting their level of integrity. The problem is that this approach rewards those with low moral standards. Anyone with high moral standards is likely to come up short, thus opening themselves to the charge of being morally inconsistent (or in their mangled use of the term, a hypocrite). But I would prefer to have politicians who fail to live up to objective moral standards than to to have those who think no such standards exist.
Because Sanford has betrayed the trust of his family and his community, he should resign his position as governor. But we should not resign ourselves to the idea that the only inexcusable sin a politician can commit is hypocrisy.