As we've seen in the recent Republican presidential debates, most candidates make a point of saying they go to church. This is good politics for a lot of reasons. It implies that the candidate has a strong moral foundation because they publicly adhere to a system that clearly spells out Right and Wrong. Knowing right from wrong is an important advantage when you're making decisions that affect millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. That "one nation under God" thing gives people a lot of confidence, because who doesn't want God on their side? Even most atheists I know are willing to concede that, should heaven and hell exist, they'd prefer not to spend all eternity up to their butts in hot lava.
The problem is, what if I say I know how important it is to be Good, but then act Bad off and on for 13 years with a lady who's not my wife?
Earlier this week, an Atlanta businesswoman named Ginger White came forward to say that she'd had a "casual" 13-year-long affair with Herman Cain. This coming on top of four decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct, the Cain campaign went into full lockdown mode and denied everything. Would he withdraw from the race? Anti-Cain groups were gleeful, hoping that the hypocrisy of yet another values-and-morality candidate would be fatal to his bid for the White House. Cain supporters who'd stood by him during the earlier misconduct charges wavered after hearing about what appeared to be a substantial indiscretion -- substantiated by 61 text messages and a credible source.
Cain's wife of 47 years, Gloria, has been all but invisible during his campaign, having only given one interview to Greta Van Susteren last month. So it's impossible to tell if she is remaining quietly supportive of the man she's given her life to, or if the whole open marriage thing was working just fine before the media started poking around, or if she's just as surprised as everyone else and she's distancing herself in order to get a head start to divorce court.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, openly admits that he's made some terrible mistakes in his married life (including carrying on an affair in the midst of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal), but says he's "evolving." Now that he's a Catholic (he was raised Lutheran, then became a Baptist as a college student before converting to Catholicism in 2009), Gingrich recognizes the errors of his ways and has probably been forgiven after a no doubt lengthy confession. But is he implying that all those years when he wasn't a Catholic, his faith, and therefore his fidelity, was just a sham?
Ultimately, Cain is avoiding playing a The Devil made me do it card, and for that we can be grateful. His attorney, Lin Wilson, is doing his best to put a secular spin on the latest crisis, saying this in a letter sent to Fox 5 Atlanta:
This appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults — a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public. The public’s right to know and the media’s right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one’s bedroom door.
Socially conservative Republican voters, however, can't un-know what's already come to light, and can do nothing but think that the heart of their previously-favorite candidate is farther from God than they thought possible. In a country that identifies itself (according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey) as 76 percent Christian, almost 100 percent of the Republican candidates identify themselves as Christian. (Kudos to Fred Karger who, though not on the hot list at the moment, stands as the only non-practicing Jew.) Clearly, separation of church and state is all well and good, but separation of church and a presidential candidate is fatal.
But let's say Cain or Gingrich get all the way to the top and one of them wins the election. Can they keep it in their pants for four years? The drama of Bill Clinton's extramarital sex life before and during his presidency almost derailed his whole career. Kenneth Starr's three-ring circus grabbed more headlines than Clinton's efforts to find Osama bin Laden, and Starr didn't rest until Clinton was impeached.
I don't know if a Cain or Gingrich presidency would look the same as Clinton's, since liberals tend to be more, well, liberal about these things, and tend to start fewer morality witch hunts. This could be because Democrats know that if they start throwing stones, their own glass houses won't be safe for much longer.
The problem is, even if the Republicans can find a candidate with a pristine moral character, is that person actually going to be smart enough, creative enough, and ballsy enough to lead a country? Being Good isn't necessarily enough.
Photo of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich by Mark Wilson/Getty