Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A few thoughts about Larry Craig and social conservatism

Leaving aside what actually happened in the Minneapolis restroom (and other times in the past), Craig’s handling of the aftermath has been incredibly inept. It’s hard to imagine him winning reelection, and he shouldn’t try. For the good of his family, his state, and his party, he should announce that he won’t be seeking reelection.

What I want to dwell on is the claim--made here, for example--that one can’t without hypocrisy be a social conservative (favoring traditional marriage) and have a questionable private life. Why not? Can’t I be a sinner and still condemn sin? Must I, because I’m a sinner, be easy on myself and others? Must I, because I’m a sinner, refuse to recognize sin for what it is?

Of course, one could respond that the issue isn’t the condemnation of sin, it’s the refusal to admit one’s own guilt. A confessed philanderer could urge fidelity in marriage and chastity outside it (leaving the positions to stand on their own legs), without holding himself up as a paragon of virtue or an example to be imitated. The sin, then, is the hypocrisy, portraying oneself as an upholder of "family values," all the while--or at least episodically, lapses of judgment or self-control--violating the values one upholds in public. There is, it seems to me, a fine line here. Can’t I advocate a position without holding myself up as an examplary representative of it? Did Larry Craig ever explicitly say (I don’t know the answer to this question): "I’m the model everyone should be imitating; everyone should be like me"? Or did he just, in his public self-presentation, put his best foot forward? Don’t we all do that? Or should or must we begin every interaction with a comprehensive public confession of sin?

Perhaps in our relentlessly confessional age, where no one’s privacy is respected, such a preliminary admission--full disclosure, as opposed to the "limited hang-out"--might be good policy. Perhaps the model should be the repentant and penitent sinner, the one who recognizes and acknowledges how far short he’s fallen. But must this always be done in public, not to mention in all its technicolor gory details? It’s one thing to do this before one’s friends and family, or before one’s church, quite another to do it in public, where it borders on the unseemly, not to say prurient. And, of course, however free one might then be to advocate for a position, it’s not clear that one can hold and win office after such a confession. It may in the end be easier to keep one’s mouth shut about social issues--the fervent hope of libertartians and other advocates of sexual freedom--in an effort (perhaps vain) to keep one’s reputation and life intact.

I don’t mean in any of this to let "sinners" off the hook. And I think that people whose private lives can’t withstand close scrutiny ought to think twice before they become involved in public life. No one’s perfect. But it is in the end impossible to separate the message from the messenger. Those who take the former seriously ought to attend seriously to their own character as witnesses. Larry Craig shouldn’t have shut up. But he should have sought to be as beyond reproach as it’s possible for a fallible human being to be.

Discussions - 20 Comments

I've seen this discussion on the nature of hypocrisy on other websites, most notably a post by Jonah Goldberg over at NRO. It's an interesting discussion.

Whether a person is being hypocritical depends both on what that person has said in the past, and how it was said:

  • A person who humbly says that alcohol is a horrible addiction and that others should be wary of its powers is not a hypocrite if that person is an alcoholic and falls prey to the temptation.
  • But that person would be a hypocrite if they'd cursed those who drank, berated those who didn't believe in total abstention from drink, then went out and got blitzed each night.

Had Larry Craig sponsored legislation that made tougher the penalties for lewd homosexual conduct in public bathrooms, then argued that he should not be subject to those penalties ... then he'd be a hypocrite.

Had Larry Craig publicly condemned all aspects of the homosexual lifestyle, but practiced it in secret ... then he'd be a hypocrite.

Larry Craig the Senator being against gay marriage does not make Larry Craig the man a hypocrite for engaging in homosexual activities. Gay marriage is not a necessary extension of gay activity, any more than heterosexual marriage is a necessary extension of a one night stand.

I would argue, however, that the point being debated is hardly the most significant issue that comes from this turn of events. I would argue that most people viewing this aren't weighing the finer points of the definition of hypocrisy, but rather forming larger, and more visceral impressions of things. Some about Larry Craig the man, but also some about the Republican Party in general. And that last point, in bold, is what I see precious little focus on in the various websites.

The bigger threat here is that the Larry Craig incident may prove to be the tipping point in public perception of the Republican Party. There has now been a long procession of things -- Foley just prior the 2006 elections, Hastert's reaction to the Foley incident, the Abramoff scandal and the taint from it, all the Republican pork by senators such as Stevens and Lott, and the whole issue of illegal immigration and how Republicans made that more of a close call than it should have been. And now this.

I liken this to investors trying to ride out a bear market. Each day another bad turn of events occurs and they ask, "Where is the bottom?" Similarly, many conservative voters have to be asking, "When will this end?" "How deep does the rot go?" "Is there any hope for true leadership in this party any more?"

Sadly, it's unclear what the answers to those questions are. And I fear that a good portion of previously reliable voters will now just shake their heads and turn their backs. Probably never to come back, unless there is a significant and extensive re-invention of the Party.

The 2006 losses were in part due to Iraq, but also in part due to the perception of a broken covenant with the voters. Republicans were supposed to be different. We entrusted our vote to them and they turned their back, both on policy issues such as spending and immigration, as well as embarrassing us personally in matters such as Foley and Craig.

The prospects for the 2008 elections were never great, but the Craig scandal has made it even more difficult. And again I ask the question -- Does this represent a tipping point? I hope not, but I'm fearful it just may.

There have already been a number of Republican calls for Craig to resign, and I hope he does so, though I doubt that we'll be spared the spectacle of an investigation into his conduct, by the press and perhaps by the Democrats.

I saw Jonah G's remarks after I'd written this post, and by and large agree with them.

It's clear that Larry's very imperfeclty controlled weakness for homoerotic quickies has been widely known for at least a quarter century, and like Foley he was a timebomb who should have been dealt with firmly and privately long ago. This really is more evidence of Republican irresponsibility, let's face it. But to tell the truth, if I were a MN taxpayer I'd wonder what my law enforcement officials were doing trying to entrap pathetic wretches in bathroom stalls into giving incriminating hand signals or whatever it was. It's possible to have some compassion for the man while wanting him gone as fast as possible.

JK wrote: "There have already been a number of Republican calls for Craig to resign, and I hope he does so, though I doubt that we'll be spared the spectacle of an investigation into his conduct, by the press and perhaps by the Democrats."

I fear the damage is already done. On the NBC News tonight there was a story about how this will have a "huge impact on the grass roots". They trotted out some "Republican Strategist" I'd never heard of to confirm the damage. So at least NBC has the narrative they want. They can play the story for weeks regardless of what Craig does at this point. The logical extension to this story will be: "What other Republican scandal is waiting in the wings?" And we can be assured the media will seek it out, and amplify pretty much everything they find.

PL wrote: "It's possible to have some compassion for the man while wanting him gone as fast as possible."

No doubt, which is what makes Craig's news conference and lingering all the more pitiful. Compassion would suggest that he admit his flaws and step away from the stage. All politics aside, at this point he does not serve himself well by continuing to swing when the fight is over.

Democrats are able to say one thing and do the opposite all the time without being stuck with the hypocrite label. Funny how that works.

I like all the distinctions that are made above, there is a sort of reasonableness to them. But in the end I think I disagree with this reasonableness.

I would ask if it isn't the case that we are sinners because primarily we refuse to recognize it as sin. I can't really know what others think unless they tell me, but even then actions speak louder than words. I should suppose that the alcoholic or anyone else in the depths of an addition, might be best situated to declame it. The idea that one can speak out against a thing without being a hypocrite really depends upon the addictive qualities of the thing.

Barring addiction I should have to say to the hypocrite that he does not really believe his own words. Your actions tell me that you do not believe it to be sin/evil/bad, or else that this is an acceptable bad in service to a higher good: pleasure/wealth/power.

For what is addiction if not loss of control over structuring priorities? For those who still retain the ability to structure priorities, actions clearly indicate what they prioritize.

Actions indicate our priorities and our priorities indicate our ethical judgements.

One is only excused from sin by the very factors that make one incompetent to rule, namely addiction.

In other words if you partake on a consitent basis in any activity which is not addictive, over which you have the ability to prioritize other activities..then this activity is a good, it is something of moral worth(from the moral perspective of the agent).

You can't be a serious person and a sinner, because a serious person upon introspection would have to agree that he doesn't hold it to be a sin at all, or that it is an addiction he cannot control.

Really this does go back to issues of subjectivism/relativism.

In the end I think the subjectivist is more willing to accept a flexibility within the nature of moral judgements, in exchange for a rigidity when it comes to saying that actions represent true belief.

Conversely those who hold to almost no flexibility over the nature of moral judgements, always seem to want to seperate ethics or a discussion of what is right, good and praiseworthy from the true actions of those who sing the praises.

I need to work on this post...but I think that for many relativists/subjectivists one cannot be a sinner and condemn sin. There is an interesting trade-off here.


JK writes: What I want to dwell on is the claim ... that one can’t without hypocrisy be a social conservative (favoring traditional marriage) and have a questionable private life. Why not? Can’t I be a sinner and still condemn sin? Must I, because I’m a sinner, be easy on myself and others? Must I, because I’m a sinner, refuse to recognize sin for what it is?

I think you overlook the special status of being an elected leader.

Everyone recognizes that as children grow older, they get greater freedom to make their own choices. With that freedom, so we often tell them, comes greater moral responsibility.

Isn't it much the same with power and responsibility? When voters give greater power to an person and place him in a position of leadership, doesn't that power come with greater moral responsibility?

If it's true, and I think it is, that "character counts most" in our elected leaders, aren't we entitled to look into their character more closely than we would that of our neighbors? And can we do that without looking into how they conduct their personal lives? Can't we hold them to a higher standard than others precisely because we grant them greater power than others?

He should go, if only because a man who says he made the wrong decision pleading guilty in a criminal case should have no part in confirming Supreme Court Justices, ratifying treaties, declaring war and setting a budget.


I agree with everything you say. The only additional point I'd make is that the argument for "traditional morality" stands on its own legs, regardless of the failings of (some of) its advocates.

I want and expect integrity, character, and decency from my elected officials, and would no more vote for an honest immoralist than a hypocritical moralist.

Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary defines hypocrite as "one who puts on a mask and feigns himself to be what he is not; a dissembler in religion." What could better describe Larry Craig than the first part of that definition?

Other definitions:

Cambridge (hypocrisy) - "when someone pretends to believe something that they do not really believe or that is the opposite of what they do or say at another time"

I guess this can go back to the old Socratic issue of akrasia. Does Sen. Craig (R-ID) truly believe that homosexuality is sinful? Does he really think it's immoral to seek out sex acts in public toilet stalls? If he does, then why is he behaving this way?

Webster's 1913 - "One who plays a part; especially, one who, for the purpose of winning approbation of favor, puts on a fair outside seeming; one who feigns to be other and better than he is; a false pretender to virtue or piety; one who simulates virtue or piety." [Perhaps they should have also added "for the purpose of winning approbation of favor OR election votes in politics"]

Merriam-Webster's - "1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion OR 2 : a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings"

For those willing to accept that it's even possible, perhaps Larry Craig is a very confused bisexual. Perhaps he is actually gay, apparently one who must think of his gayness as a loathsome aspect of himself, and yet has finally been able to admit it only to himself, and ultimately caved in to seeking some furtive gay sex (perhaps he thought this would be relatively safer than any other transaction - such as via the internet - where he might risk being outed, which would be/is political suicide). But to hear a guy (not the first time, I guess) say "I am not (a) gay" who has been pretty clearly busted for seeking out a sleazy encounter in a public bathroom, well, that certainly seems to match the definitions above.

Mr. Knippenberg asked "Did Larry Craig ever explicitly say (I don’t know the answer to this question): 'I’m the model everyone should be imitating; everyone should be like me'?" No, I don't believe he did (has any politician reached that height/depth of brazen arrogance?) say those outrageous words, but simply by being a member of the GOP, especially within the last 25 years or so - the party that loves God and Guns, and isn't so fond of Gays, to say the least - he has implicitly put himself out there as a PROTECTOR and REPRESENTATIVE of the model that is being espoused for something like a categorical imperative among the Republican Party of Morality and Family Values. Get married, reproduce, attend a Christian Church or maybe a synagogue, and keep gays out of society as much as possible and do not accept homosexual behavior. Larry Craig had maintained most of that (his children were all, admirably, adopted, but/and he's on the board of the National Rifle Assoc.), until he had this akratic episode at the airport and acted fairly recklessly.

By voting in favor of "The Defense of Marriage Act" Sen. Craig seemed to be truly doing a self-loathing number. He could have opted to simply not vote on it, quietly explaining to himself that he felt torn on the issue. But he likely knew that his right-wing constituents would have none of that, and would certainly never vote for him again if he came out of the closet regarding gay sex, and the fact that he fancies it, at least from time to time.

I think the dialogue between the religious right and the secular left will probably not progress to anything very productive as long as the religious right believes that Sen. Craig is sinful for being attracted to men, and even more so for acting on it, while the secular left does not think it's wrong to be gay (and many religious liberals agree with that as well, not agreeing to scriptural interpretations that make gay sex a sin) or even to have gay sex. The secular left, I think, generally supports a state of affairs where Sen. Craig could have opted to be openly gay, perhaps even marry a man if he wished, and thus avoided the furtive underground sex encounters (of course, there would be no guarantee he could then win an election in Idaho, or most any red state!). His sin/wrongdoing here, from the secular left perspective, is seeking to sate his sexual appetite in a totally inappropriate, public place. From what I can tell, that is only PART of the sin for those looking at this from a religious right perspective. Simply being attracted to those of the same sex is another crucial part of the sin for those folks.

Mr. Knippenberg also asked "Can’t I advocate a position without holding myself up as an examplary representative of it?" Well, yes, but the details matter, of course. If you're, in effect, individually or by party membership, saying gays are inherently bad, sinful people who should be ostracized as much as possible, but you are yourself gay, then that's problematic. Be it within conservative churches or in the halls of politics, why does it seem that so often the ones who are seemingly so stridently obsessed with rooting out from society what they they see as immoral are themselves participants in that immoral behavior or members of that immoral group? Sometimes it appears that one could increase their safety from predators merely by avoiding the self-described protectors! Hypocrisy or not, they can't really be taken seriously, they're not credible. I honestly wonder just how many "Family Values" pols are really in deep need of some psychotherapy.

Setting aside the hypocrisy issue for a moment, the irony here is that if a family man takes his sons into a public bathroom at an airport or a public park, the odds seem to be uncomfortably high that they will encounter some disturbing activities being performed by one of the representatives of the Party to Protect Morality and Family Values - The Republican Party.

As I recall (and remember,I am a relatively Godless Yankee Liberal, so I may be wrong), Jesus tolerated sin, and preached a similar tolerance. It was the throwing of stones while being a sinner that he warned against.

This, I think, is the reason that many Democrats feel okay about jumping on the hypocrisy of lawmakers like Craig.

Generally, social liberals acknowledge that we all have our faults, and that we don't want them exposed. But, at the same time, social liberals are less likely to throw judgmental stones at "sinners," and to worry about "sin" quite as much as their conservative counterparts do.

If people like Craig would stay out of the bedrooms of gays and lesbians and adulterers, and single moms and pregnant teens, then people like me would be much easier on them when they show up with restroom floor grit on their trousers.

I'm not personally interested in being in anyone's bedroom but my own. (I might have to revise that policy to include bathrooms too, I guess.) But giving social sanction and approval to a relationship is a different matter altogether. Toleration and approval are two different things. And recognizing that one, too, is a sinner doesn't require winking at anyone's sin, one's own or another's.

Fung wrote: "Jesus tolerated sin, and preached a similar tolerance."

Not quite. It should be remembered what Jesus told the adulterous woman who was nearly stoned: "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 7:11, NIV, emphasis added)

Jesus understood that sin was a part of human nature. Jesus had the power and compassion to forgive sins. Jesus offers a way not only to have past sins wiped clean, but also a way to take him into our lives so we become more like him and thus have the ability to sin less and less.

But I think it off the mark to suggest that Jesus tolerated sin. That would suggest he was somehow indifferent to it, or, as some would have it, accepted it.

At this point it's important to recall the famous "Judge not" from the Sermon on the Mount. It plays a role in this Craig story. Part of the indictment against Craig specifically, and social conservatives in general, is that they can be overly judgmental in their condemnation of other behavior. And there is no greater pleasure than finding a censorious person caught up in a web of their own making. It's not merely that Craig is a hypocrite; rather it's that Craig represents a broad and vague judgmentalism not much cared for by the left.

Joe Knippenberg wrote: "But giving social sanction and approval to a relationship is a different matter altogether. Toleration and approval are two different things."

Absolutely. This is one of my big pet peeves with the gay lobby. Their original objective was toleration, which they have essentially achieved. But having achieved that, they now want approval. They are conflating toleration with approval which, as Joe points out, are not the same.

Of course, the choice between toleration and approval was not the one that I had presented. Instead, I discussed the difference betweeen throwing judgmental stones and tolerance.

The ensuing discussion makes quite a leap, if we must accept the premise that failing to throw stones is the same as approving.

Fung wrote: "The ensuing discussion makes quite a leap, if we must accept the premise that failing to throw stones is the same as approving."

Failing to throw stones is clearly not the same thing as approving. Sadly, in today's world silence on a given behavior is often interpreted as disapproval, which is why many advocacy groups (the gay lobby in particular, with the transgender folks not far behind) strive to force a kind of full throated celebration of their chosen lifestyle. It seems anything short of that is construed to be condemnation, and therefore intolerance.

It's a sick, sick world.

I'm back!

And I'll surprise those of you who remember me by saying I think Don in AZ is right - Craig may be flawed but he isn't a hypocrite. Except in the sense that he is a lawmaker who was breaking a law. But he campaigned against same sex marriage, not same sex activity.

Still, he didn't do himself any favors by pursuing an agenda that stigmatized homosexuals. Plus he now has to explain whether he is homosexual by choice or because he was born into it; either way he's going to alienate a lot of people.

I prefer the honest immoralist by a landslide. With the honest immoralist a discussion of ethics is possible. With the dishonest moralist such a discussion is futile. I am a rare sort of liberal. I like to throw rocks. But I don't throw my rocks at Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan or Howard Stern these folks are honest if at times obnoxious. I like Hillary Clinton because although I disagree with her views and find her to be an "immoralist" she at least seems to be an honest immoralist(When speaking to the Rich, she admits that she will raise taxes, on them specifically! and she defends special interest groups at a Daily Kos convention!). The same with Ron Paul althought I disagree with him somewhat on the war it may be unfair to call him an "immoralist"(that is because we share many outlooks). Really when we say someone is immoral we mean one of two things. Either he is immoral because he disagrees with us on the grounds of morality and therefore its particulars, or he is immoral because he is dishonest and thus we have no way of knowing what his grounds trully are.

I would rather have an intellectual disagreement over what constitutes morality, than a supposed intellectual agreement that is fraudulent, especially as such a discussion applies to politics.

Despite some of my objections to Ron Paul I am seriously thinking of registering Republican just to vote for him.

I think it is rather pathetic to even bother distinguishing between same sex activity and same sex marriage, especially in this context. Suddenly the logical positivists emmerge...but they are nowhere near logical positivists when it comes to having opinions on ethics.

Forget about it! It is time to start casting stones and tossing incumbents.

Lets oversimplify a complex philosophical discussion and cut out the sophistry. Ethics=priorities. Actions are based on priorities. Therefore actions reflect ethical valuations and judgements. There is really no such thing as an immoralist. An immoralist is just someone who from your perspective orders his actions according to the wrong priorities. In politics an immoralist is someone with a different ideology, or a different set of rules for ordering priorities. To a republican many democrats appear to be immoralists, and vice versa.

What is more noxious someone whose actions reveal that he has priorities different from yours, and who also claims to have priorities different from yours or someone whose actions reveal priorities that he has difficulty claiming, owning up to, embracing?

When my tigers start eating grass and my zebras aquire a taste for flesh, and my acorns grow apple trees...I will commit myself to a mental institution, and yet to hear some people talk about the possibility of ethics seperate and distinct from is on my to do list...I will get to it tommorow..after this one night more drink...Excuses...weak...I would rather philosophize with Hugh Hefner.

An honest immoralist seems like a contradiction in terms, unless you want to say that honesty is not an aspect of morality.

The same holds true for a "dishonest moralist". Unless you want to say that lying is not immoral behavior.

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