First came the news of Mark Sanford’s victory in South Carolina’s First District to Congress. For anyone who remembers Sanford’s well publicized marital infidelity, it must have struck many observers as strange that evangelical Protestants — I hear South Carolina is thick with them — would return Sanford to public office. But they also had no problem with Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries:
This wasn’t the first time the Republican voters of South Carolina put fidelity to party over fidelity to fidelity. In the 2012 Republican primary, voters were reminded of Newt Gingrich’s admitted adultery and three marriages. His second wife spoke out just days before the vote. Gingrich won by 12.5 percentage points over the morally pure Mitt Romney. He won 45 percent of the evangelical vote, a group that has at times shown more than a passing interest in the morality of public officials. He won 46 percent of those who said that the religious beliefs of a candidate were very or somewhat important.
South Carolina conservatives may still say a candidate’s sins matter, but they aren’t voting that way. In fact, if you weren’t privy to the state’s strong social conservative history, you could almost mistake South Carolinians for city folk—people who vote for experience, policy, and political leanings and show a sophisticate’s relativism toward personal moral failings. These days, South Carolinians seem almost Parisian when they enter the voting booth.
Ross Douthat is having none of Sanford’s theological interpretation of his victory, nor is the columnist optimistic about what this election means for “family values,” once the brand of evangelical Protestant politics:
I’m not particularly surprised by that outcome: Sanford was the G.O.P. candidate in a conservative district, and voting on party rather than character is usually the path of least resistance for partisans on both sides. But the fact that South Carolina Republicans took that path, and made his swift and shameless comeback a success, is still a useful indicator of where the energy is on the right — and it emphatically isn’t with people who see the decline of marriage as a bigger issue for conservatism and America than the precise balance of power in the House of Representatives. Again, the preference among conservatives is obviously for stable marriages and family values and so forth — for the example set by the figures McArdle lists, rather than for Sanford-style shenanigans. But there apparently isn’t enough passion behind that preference at the moment to induce Republican voters to sacrifice even a single House seat on its behalf.
At the same time, this was not a complete win-win for evangelicals since it seems that Sanford himself is an Episcopalian (which suggests that evangelical Protestants are truly ecumenical and likely clueless when they vote according to their w-w, that is, if the lines between evangelicals and mainline Protestants still matter).
And then came yesterday’s news about Martha Mullen, the Virginia Methodist who found a place for Tamerlan Tsarnaev to be buried. When I heard her interview on NPR I could not believe — it moved me to tears (Edwardseans should be happy) — how Christian her motivation (but I’m not an Edwardsean and can’t see her heart) was. Here’s part of the transcript:
CORNISH: Now, you took it upon yourself to find a cemetery that would bury his body, and you don’t have a connection to his family, so why get involved?
MULLEN: Well, I was listening to NPR and I heard the story ongoing that he was unable to be buried and that people are protesting him. And it made me think of Jesus’ words: Love your enemies. I felt that, also, he was being maligned probably because he was Muslim.
And Jesus tells us to – in the parable of the Good Samaritan – to love your neighbor as yourself. And your neighbor is not just someone you belong with but someone who is alien to you. That was the biggest motivation, is that, you know, if I’m going to live my faith, then I’m going to do that which is uncomfortable and not necessarily that’s what comfortable. . . .
CORNISH: Martha, you heard about the story because of the protests. And did you have concerns about making this move that you would become the target of protests or people would have a real problem with what you were doing?
MULLEN: Well, I thought about that, but there’s a line in the Scripture that says whether we live or whether we die, we’re the Lord’s. And I feel like – I don’t think anything really horrible is going to happen to me. I think people are probably going to be upset and irritated and disagree with what this interfaith group has decided to go forward with, but I feel like it was the right thing and it’s important to be true to the principle of your faith.
Now words like these may be cheap, and Jesus’ words are certainly not obscure. But that it took a mainline Methodist to undertake what strikes me strikes me as something so obviously right was amazing, especially considering how many Americans (including Protestants of all kinds) were opposed to letting this terrorist be returned to dust. We do not refuse to bury persons our law enforcement system sentences to execution. So why we should try to prevent Tamerlan Tsarnaev from being buried, or even be suspicious of Martha Mullen or the owners of the cemetery that received the body, is dumbfounding. I know I may be naive about Islam thanks to a trip to Turkey, which is hardly the most representative of Muslim societies. But if conservative Presbyterians think that Paul Hill is not representative of strict Reformed Protestantism, is it not possible for Americans to imagine that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not your average Muslim?
Then again, the United States has a tradition of moralism that insists, one strike and you’re in hell. The Boston bombings were truly heinous. But a civilized (even Christian) society refuses to abandon conventions like burial of dead bodies even for murderers. The lesson of Joe Paterno, who simply did not do enough to turn in a pederast and for that misdeed lost a chance to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, is a reminder of that moral standard. Who indeed can stand in that great day?