Thou shalt not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14
Thou shalt not commit adultery; and he that committeth adultery, and repenteth not, shall be cast out. But he that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive; But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out. – Doctrine and Covenants 42:24-26
Adultery has reared its ugly head in the Republican presidential campaign, derailing the Herman Cain Express and turning many values voters away from faux conservative (and admitted adulterer) Newt Gingrich. After many conversations with Jewish and LDS conservatives about Newt’s suitability for the presidency, I’ve been struck by how the two groups differ in the relative importance that they attach to adulterous behavior by politicians. This is most likely due to two factors: 1) The tendency of Jews to be fiscal, not social, conservatives; and 2) The theological consequences of adulterous behavior in the two faith traditions.
Most Jewish Republicans I know hate taxes and favor small government, but they are also pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage. [My fellow Jewish Journal blogger Dennis Prager is a notable exception]. When asked to evaluate Newt’s moral character, not one conservative Jew told me that a politician’s unfaithfulness to a spouse would prevent him from pulling the lever for the candidate. Regardless of whether Newt was their first choice, all of the Jews said that they would have no trouble supporting him if he were their party’s nominee.
It’s logical for Jewish Republicans to like Newt, since in many ways he’s one of them. He’s smart, articulate, fiscally conservative and pro-Israel. Should these qualities be negated by Newt’s private sexual behavior, objectionable though it may be? For Jewish supporters of Gingrich, as for many Republicans, the most important question is whether he can win the White House, not whether he has kept his marriage vows. Jews know that the perfect is often the enemy of the good, so they’re willing to overlook adulterous behavior more than a decade old if they feel that Newt can defeat President Obama next fall.
This pragmatic position is not held by most Mormon conservatives I know, who are both social and fiscal conservatives. It is very difficult for many of them to ignore Newt’s adultery when evaluating his candidacy, even if they feel that he can win in 2012. Judging from Facebook posts and online discussions, there are quite a few Mormons who, like me, will not vote for either presidential candidate if Newt is the Republican nominee (in my case, this is also true of Ron Paul, and was true of Rudy Giuliani four years ago).
The status and definition of the sin of adultery in the two faiths’ theologies might account for the divergence of views on its usefulness in evaluating someone’s character. While adultery is explicitly condemned in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish law specifies that only married women can commit adultery. Married men who have sexual relations with someone other than their spouse are guilty of fornication, not adultery. While this distinction is largely ignored by Jews living in today’s secular culture, which condemns such behavior as adulterous whether committed by men or women, I can’t help but wonder whether this ancient rule has influenced the thinking of modern-day Jewish conservatives willing to support a notorious (male) adulterer as the leader of the free world.
In LDS theology, both men and women can commit adultery, one of the most serious sins. In fact, it can be grounds for excommunication. Although each case is judged on its merits, and it is impossible to predict the outcome, it is likely that if Mitt Romney were discovered to have committed adultery, he would lose his LDS Church membership (though he could be rebaptized following a period of repentance). It is also likely that much of his Mormon support base would vanish, even if the alleged offenses had taken place more than a decade ago.
As stated above in a quote from an LDS book of scripture, Mormons do believe that it is possible to repent of adultery. However, some conservatives still believe that a person who betrays two spouses forfeits the privilege of being the conservative standard-bearer in a national election, regardless of whether he later changes his ways.
As a conservative, I lament the rise of Rush Limbaugh-style “conservatism,” which focuses not on a candidate’s private moral behavior but on his public fiscal positions. Rush, a man who has been married four times and who abused prescription drugs for years, somehow believes that this behavior is acceptable for a self-styled “true conservative.” In this election season, I am very proud that both LDS candidates have lived conservative principles all of their lives and have strong marriages and beautiful families to show for it.
I don’t know when exactly conservatism began to be defined down, but I was appalled to read this week that respected conservative thinker (and personal idol) Thomas Sowell said that he plans to support a thrice-married former adulterer for president. Had he said that he supported Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry, I would have applauded him for supporting a true conservative candidate. Indeed, Iowa’s Secretary of State is Mormon, and he’s supporting Santorum.
I have no problem with moderates, policy wonks and fiscal conservatives voting for Gingrich. However, “values voters” who support him are akin to “feminist” Democrats who campaigned for Ted Kennedy. If “family values” means anything, it means respect for the institution of marriage. Someone who cheated on – lied to and deceived—his first wife, then cheated on his next wife with his current one for seven years, is not a family values candidate – or a true conservative. My Jewish Republican friends and I can agree to disagree on whether previous adulterous behavior should disqualify someone from running as a conservative presidential candidate. That said, we would all do well to reflect on a statement made by El Rushbo himself: “We conservatives are never stronger than when we are advancing our principles.” Indeed.
Mark Paredes blogs for the Jewish Journal, the Deseret News, and Meridian Magazine. He will be leading a tour to Israel for Morris Murdock Travel next spring. You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jewsandmormons.