Mixed moral messages are everywhere this election season. Liberal commentators like Jon Stewart delight in pointing out, for example, how Republican voters disenchanted with the obfuscatory Herman Cain and his alleged extramarital affair are switching to Newt Gingrich – who is known to have had more than one such dalliance.
Having fun at the expense of buffoonish public figures may make for good soundbites, but it’s just as silly as they are. Voters don’t care about their candidates’ and politicians’ ethical lapses. The only people who care are those who can profit from them: opposing politicians, and commentators who make lush livings trumping up outrage.
Did you notice Tiger Woods is back? The golfer just won his first tournament since a sex scandal busted his righteous reputation over two years ago. But think about it: why do revelations of sexual misbehavior cause a cultural-athletic giant like Woods such career-stalling distress, when no one actually cares except reporters?
Sure, it’s embarrassing. But that’s an emotion felt by the offender, not the spectators. In fact all the important feelings are felt by the offender. It’s the damage to someone’s own personal life and state of mind that knocks that person down, and it’s when he repairs that damage that he can win a tournament again – or make a Gingrichian political comeback.
For our part, we, the public, feel little more than a faint schadenfreude, or perhaps a touch of pity. Even when the behavior is absurdly egregious, like Bill Clinton getting blowjobs in the Oval Office, the feelings it evokes in the public are of shame and disgust, not moral indignation or (heaven forbid) religious offense.
When Herman Cain’s poll numbers drop it’s not because droves of voters feel disappointed by revelations of the pizza king’s sexual misbehavior. Fundamentally, we don’t care about that crap, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats. And I for one am fed up with being fed moralistic pundit-pablum claiming that we do.
This primary season Republicans are looking for someone who’ll embody their feelings about what kind of country they think this should be and what should be done to improve their lot. And as they sample their tasting menu, the flavor of the month has begun to fade. That’s all.
Sure, most Americans believe in God, but that’s not even remotely the same thing as being “religious” in a moral or ethical sense. Americans (like most everyone else) rarely follow the teachings of religious figures – even super-cool ones like Jesus. Progress, when it occurs, arises not out of the strength of Americans’ religiosity, but in spite of its failures.
Is there a poll out there showing voters disdaining Cain or switching to Gingrich because of the candidates’ moral characters – or lack thereof? I doubt it. And if you did find someone who considers such things crucial, I’d bet you my payroll tax cut that they were just using it as an excuse for something much more fundamental to human nature. Like hunger. Or selfishness. Or shame. Or, what the hell, racism.
All I know is, I’ve been observing politics for many seasons, and while I see a lot of religious pandering and subtext, I don’t see religious ethics driving anybody’s actions. The abortion issue may be something of an exception, but feelings of protectiveness towards the unborn have been so drowned in feelings of spite and hatred that it’s hard to see the religion even there.
And let’s not forget that the most in-your-face-religious guy running this year, Rick Santorum, is getting almost no attention at all.
The only way religion might prove decisive this time around is if it causes Mitt Romney to lose the primary race. In that case religion would be functioning not as a moral bulwark, but as a cause of divisiveness and distrust.
Just what Jesus preached.