Governor Spitzer and Marital Infidelity

[1] The fall of yet another politician on grounds of marital infidelity is nothing new, but it is always news. It is also tiresome and upsetting, for we would like to think that our elected officials are decent people whose character would not allow this kind of conduct. It prompts some thoughts about personal morality and the nature of public service on the part of elected officials.

[2] When I pledge my support to a candidate for public office – let’s call him John Doe, a candidate for governor – I enter into a kind of covenant with him, depending on him to fulfill the promises he has made in the campaign. Because I agree with the positions he has taken on all or at least most of the issues, I give him my support. Doe becomes a political “soul-brother,” advocating for positions that I believe in and may care about deeply. I justifiably expect him to carry through to the best of his ability in actualizing the policies and programs that he has advocated in earning my vote.

[3] This is a political covenant in which we are engaged, relating to Doe’s governmental activity. He did not promise that he would be faithful to his spouse, be an attentive father to his children, or be active in his religious community. I would like him to demonstrate these qualities, of course, but they are not part of the political covenant I’ve made with him. I recognize the distinction between his private life and public responsibilities, and am sensitive to the fact that as a public official he is often denied the privacy that the rest of us expect and enjoy as a matter of course. I find offensive the efforts of an over-aggressive press that is always ready to pander to the nosiness of the public concerning the private life of public officials. As long as Doe is not engaging in illegal activity, I am obligated to respect his right to privacy.

[4] I also am aware of what politics does to the private life of an elected official. The partisan spirit that dominates political life is intent on exploiting anything that appears the least bit suspicious about a public servant. The driving purpose of the opposition party is not to ascertain the truth but to plant suspicion in the public mind and create a distasteful image of the official that will weaken his standing and make him vulnerable to political defeat. This turning of morality from an end to a self-serving means is the way that politics corrupts morality. The ultimate political weapon would be impeachment, even though that recourse hardly fits the partisan effort to oust an office holder on grounds of marital infidelity or other sexual misdeeds. Any number of admirable presidents (and likely governors) could not have survived that standard.

[5] The distinction I am working with here between public and private life fits well within Lutheran social ethics. Luther recognized the autonomy of the political order and the moral obligations peculiar to political office. I am not to judge Doe as a public servant on the basis of his personal faithfulness to Christ, or his devotion to his wife and children, but on the basis of his commitment to the people’s welfare. If he is a capable person who works effectively on behalf of justice and order, he is fulfilling his vocational task. To paraphrase Luther, “Better a wise but unbelieving secularist at the helm of government than an incompetent Christian whose personal life is beyond reproach.”

[6] While the above distinction serves as a valid principle, we run into problems if we try to apply it as an absolute rule. This is because the distinction between one’s private and public life is not an absolute division; one remains the same person as one operates in two different worlds. Thus people who think that a candidate’s personal integrity is less than solid may be justified in thinking that his public actions may also lack integrity. This point may justify a hard look at Doe’s private life as a way of determining the nature of his character. And yet the irony of such an investigation is that it may tell us very little about what Doe will actually accomplish as governor. To cast one’s vote for a candidate on grounds of his appearing to demonstrate a superior personal morality is likely to be an exercise in irrelevance.

[7] When we take the case of Governor Spitzer, there are elements that touch on a number of the points made above. The FBI was delving into suspicious-looking banking transactions on the part of Spitzer which could have been intended to dodge the $10,000 threshold that necessitates filing federal reports. That would have been illegal activity that warranted investigation. But when the FBI discovered that it was a case of prostitution it signaled an opportunity to make a sensational disclosure. Thus politics appears to be driving this episode, with threats of impeachment being the ultimate weapon to bring the opponent to his knees. By resigning, Spitzer at least avoids that humiliation.

[8] The apparent intent of the Justice Department to file criminal charges against Spitzer could be seen as an attempt to justify its disclosure of his amorous activities. There was talk of his being charged with violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transporting of a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. This would be a stretch, however, since the people running the business rather than the customer are the ones normally charged for this offense. Little wonder that the question of a political motivation has been raised.

[9] These reflections are not intended to deny the moral seriousness of what Spitzer has done. The seriousness, however, relates not to the citizens who voted for him, but to his family. His covenant with his wife has been painfully ruptured by this immoral betrayal; he has humiliated her and his children and deserves severe moral censure for it. There are those who voted for Spitzer who may feel betrayed by this turn of events, but they ought not feel any sense of complicity in what he has done. It is not a betrayal of the public trust but an embarrassment to his supporters and a serious sin against his family.

[10] I cannot refrain from a further judgment that is both personal and political: Spitzer has displayed amazing stupidity. As a former attorney general he forged a political career out of prosecuting politicians involved in such shady enterprises as prostitution, the very vice in which he now indulges. Thus the impact of his misdeed is magnified many times and he is seen as an unbelievable hypocrite. It is this fact, rather than the act itself, that creates such a political storm. But the fact remains that this is a personal tragedy, and it ought not diminish the significant accomplishments on the part of Spitzer during his time in public office. Indeed, whatever his personal weaknesses, he has been a significant force in uncovering corruption in his state and upholding the rule of law. That should be a lesson in itself, for all of our politicians have feet of clay and we can be thankful for whatever they achieve on behalf of the people they serve.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina