It may just have been a throwaway line, a presumed witticism, to which he gave little thought; in which case he is convicted merely of intellectual sloppiness. But it may also have been seriously meant, a revelation of his considered judgment; in which case he offers us a window into the blindness of our contemporary culture.
Writing at a time when many people were paying attention to the travails of “the Clinton couple of Arkansas,” A. M. Rosenthal, on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times that he once edited, thanked the Clintons for the “gift” of presuming “that Americans have achieved adulthood at last” and delivered himself of this opinion: “I know there are voters who do believe that a President should have what they consider a spotless sexual history. Personally the only candidate for public office I would automatically disqualify on sexual grounds would be a rapist or a virgin.”
This is not, I have a hunch, the man from whom I want to take my standard for adulthood. The issue Rosenthal was addressing in his column raises many interesting and serious questions. Should we make a sharp distinction between public and private life as in the judgment (attributed to Martin Luther) that it is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian? Or should we suppose that the moral character of people, even as displayed in relationships we think of as private, is not irrelevant to their desirability for public office? In forming our judgment about those who seek office, shall we pay more heed to the things a man says about the rights of women, or to the way he treats his wife? If we have gotten beyond paying attention to the way character is displayed in sexual conduct, is that a sign of “adulthood”? Or pseudo-sophisticated condescension?
Interesting questions, all of them. Here, though, I pass them by in order to ponder the—to my mind—astonishing claim that the rapist and the virgin are equally unfit for public office. On the assumption that Mr. Rosenthal regards rape as abhorrent, virginity must be a rather serious form of sexual offense. What can he have meant?
The most generous interpretation I can think of goes something like this: Virginity would disqualify one for office, not precisely because it is a moral failing, but because it bespeaks a lack of experience, a naiveté we can ill afford in our public servants. This presumes, however, that one might—virginity intact—reach an age suited for public office without having in any way committed oneself to such a sexual life. Surely a doubtful presumption. In our culture one who has refrained from genital intercourse is likely to be a thoughtful, committed, disciplined person. Not always, perhaps, but often. He or she is likely to have reasons to give in support of that decision, likely to have given the matter some thought. Quite the opposite of naive.
Still, though, such a person might be suspected of being almost asexual, lacking a central human passion or power. (We’d better watch our slurs, however. Perhaps in the current climate such people are best described as “libidinously challenged.”) Such a view, however, fails to appreciate the nature of humankind as male and female—indeed, in the language of Jews and Christians, the creation of humankind as a sexually differentiated species in which we come to know ourselves only through encountering the sexually other. In all of life’s meetings, and not only in coitus, we are sexual beings and we must learn to relate to each other as male and female. To narrow this encounter to coitus is to miss a great deal indeed. Men and women might treat each other with more respect than they often do in our society if we did not suppose that we are sexual beings only in bed.
These are the most generous interpretations I can offer, and they are not likely to persuade us of Rosenthal’s thoughtfulness. But perhaps he really did mean something quite different, did mean to identify rape and virginity as equally grave moral failings. If such a view can pass as intellectually and morally serious, we are in deep trouble indeed. For it sets aside the Jewish and Christian ideal of marriage and the meaning of chastity connected with it. It sets aside the Christian understanding of celibacy and virginity—of bypassing the encounter that takes place in sexual intercourse in order to give the self unreservedly to a lifelong encounter with God. It sets aside Plato’s understanding of philosophy, for which shared love of wisdom is the product of disciplined and redirected eros.
And it sets aside the lessons of common experience—that the sexual impulse is often anarchic, that in the grip of its anarchic power we may do great harm to others, and that also in this sphere of life restraint and discipline are needed if we are truly to flourish as individuals and as a community. Whatever their practice, the teenagers to whom we distribute condoms know better the dangers of such anarchy—and deserve better from those who offer their wisdom for public consumption.
Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College and a regular contributor to First Things .