Evangelicals and the Vitter Effect

By now, Washington has grown accustomed to its sex scandals. In the capital, obsessed with Iraq and the coming presidential election, the news that Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter's phone number had turned up in possession of a D.C. escort service created a relatively modest stir. The press dutifully pointed out Vitter's hypocrisy; a devout Catholic who has been an outspoken moralist, he was a vocal crusader for President Clinton's impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, accusing Clinton of draining "any sense of values left in our political culture." Vitter swiftly copped to the transgression via an e-mail to the AP. After rumors of other dalliances began cropping up in the New Orleans papers (he denied them), Vitter grimly took to the microphone, his embattled wife by his side, and, in an all-too-familiar D.C. ritual, apologies for letting his wife, friends and supporters down, then told the world he was pressing on with the people's business.

In political circles, the story felt a little like a rote script in a bad sitcom. But in the evangelical world, Vitter's fall from grace is a different matter. NEWSWEEK's Susannah Meadows spoke with Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a practicing evangelical himself, about how the news was received in the Christian community, and the toll such incidents take on the movement. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: As an evangelical, what is it like for you when yet another story breaks about a self-righteous, "family values" Christian caught cheating on his wife with another woman or man?
Michael Cromartie:
What one has to understand is that classic Christianity believes that people are fallen and desperately need a redeemer. If they're authentic Christians, they understand that but for the grace of God, they too could fall. Evangelicalism likes to pride itself on being magnanimous and forgiving. It ought to be the case that evangelicals, while not condoning such behavior, are not surprised by such sinful behavior. I'm not surprised by vice. I'm surprised by virtue.

That's a pretty dark view of humanity.
Classical Christianity has always had a negative view of human nature. Generally, the belief has been that people are broken and fallen and frail. People plod along and make mistakes. But there is a message to all guilt-ridden humanity: there is saving grace and there can be release from that guilt, shame and sin.

No wonder evangelicalism is growing so fast. That's a great sales pitch.
That is why the gospel is called good news! Some people say it's cheap grace. But it's not cheap grace to come out and confess that what you did was wrong. That isn't easy to do. I think Vitter will survive, because instead of going into denial, he's come out and said, "I did something wrong." If you come out denying, then you're really in a mess.

Do these kinds of stories hurt a movement that promotes family values?
Yes, you bet it does. Makes it look insincere and inauthentic. And it takes a very long time to recover. Any movement that goes around promoting family values and then doesn't live by them personally is certainly hypocritical. But one can also confess and apologize for the sin of hypocrisy. There are hypocrites on the conservative and liberal sides of the aisle.

Is the movement damaged to the extent that people might leave the church?
I don't know where the line is drawn where people say enough is enough. But there's not a revival of hypocrisy. These failures are the exceptions, not the rule. A good follow-up story would be to see how these people recover and whether they really do confront the darker parts of their nature in trying to repair their lives. It's something we don't hear enough about. The reformation of lives by those who have failed is a story that needs telling.

What was the conversation like among evangelicals when the news broke about Vitter?
There's a kind of stunned silence at first. Someone said, "This is an embarrassment. How can a movement recover?" I said, "You act as if something like this has never happened." The better people say, "Oh my, that's so sad." Surely, the message of the gospel can overcome these foibles. The message is not totally dependent on the lives of the messengers. Evangelicalism is a very large mosaic and it is filled with millions of people who practice what they preach.

What will become of Vitter?
This will surely change his posture and tone in a good way. It will make him a little more modest and humble. He'll learn to say, "These are the things I'm committed to," but do it in a way that's less cocky and sure of himself. A little more modesty is a good thing, especially among politicians.

Do you cringe when you hear fellow evangelicals moralizing?
I do when I read their newsletters and the way they give the appearance that they've been untouched by some of the tougher struggles that others have. It's those who have gone through the struggles that write the best. They are the most winsome [on the subject]. Billy Graham has gotten this way as he's gotten older. He knows what he believes but he's less dogmatic about it.

Will Vitter's dabblings with prostitutes have an effect on the movement's political strength?
It sets it back. We miss the stories about people who were the first on the scene when the tsunami hit. There are people who are pouring their lives into caring for the sick and the dying. They don't get the attention. They see this stuff and put their head into their hands. But the message transcends the messenger and the message is more important than the periodic mistakes and hypocrisy of the leaders.

Are you annoyed when the media jumps all over these stories?
I just say, what else is new? I was around when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker got in trouble. I always thought Swaggart was a Christian version of Elvis. We've seen a lot of counterfeit people. And a lot of those people get promoted. And that's embarrassing. The media's problem is you baptize someone to be the spokesperson for a group that the group had not, and would not, have chosen. The media has made Pat Robertson more powerful than he is. His periodic odd theological comments make for good copy.

Is there going to be political fallout in this coming election?
It sets it back in its public image but it doesn't mean that there aren't millions of people who are going to vote. Their numbers don't dwindle overnight.

Isn't there a problem of disillusionment with politicians setting in?
There's some disillusionment on the religious left and right. But that's because they expected more out of politics than they ever should have. There are people like Rick Warren and others who are trying to recast the public face of evangelicalism to be more magnanimous and less harsh.