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Here we go again

The recent revelation of Focus on the Family radio host Mike Trout's marital infidelity has pundits pelting conservatives-and Christianity-again.

Bill Maher, talk-television's answer to Nero, recently fed another Christian to his panelist-lions. On Oct. 24, an aging Boy George, minor starlet Karen Duffy, and others batted the Mike Trout story around the studio-coliseum on Mr. Maher's late-night show Politically Incorrect. Mr. Trout, longtime co-host of Focus on the Family's flagship radio broadcast, last month resigned from the Colorado Springs-based ministry. A few days later he admitted to an "inappropriate relationship" with a woman not his wife.

"How come so many of these people who are supposedly the 'family people' get caught?" Mr. Maher carped as a knowing titter rippled through the studio audience. "I mean, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Henry Hyde, Strom Thurmond ... they get caught. Why? Why?"

PromiseVision vice president Bill Horn, the panel's token conservative that evening, gamely offered a defense: "Because people make mistakes and people are human ... [Mike Trout] made a mistake and he was man enough to resign...."

Mr. Maher abruptly cut him off: "It's because they're 'pervs' to begin with and they try to cover it up by becoming Christians [and] Republicans. Those are 12-step programs for these people!"

Ugly, yes. But though he arrived at wrong conclusions, Mr. Maher was grappling in his own caustically comic way with a serious problem: the chain of hypocrisy among those who publicly preach family values, but privately poach in other people's families. The chain hamstrings innocent clergy, damages trusting laity, and, worst of all, tarnishes the image of Christ in the eyes of nonbelievers. In a media-saturated culture that emphasizes sins among Christians and conservatives, incidents of saying one thing and doing another overwhelm for many Americans any good impressions that might be created.

For example, what impression is created when Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a Southern Baptist minister elected to the Senate in 1996 after saying he would fight to stop the breakdown of the family, separates from his wife of 29 years in 1998, divorces her in 1999, and marries on Aug. 26, 2000, a former staff member who ran his Arkansas office in 1997 and 1998? Mr. Hutchinson's support in his home state has dropped. Appearances have political consequences: Gary Bauer, married for 27 years, saw his long-shot presidential campaign lose traction last year when he spent many hours in the company of an attractive, 27-year-old junior staffer. There is no evidence of any sexual misconduct on Mr. Bauer's part, but half of his disillusioned staff-including his personal secretary of 15 years-called it quits.

Among the first wrecking ball blows to the credibility of the conservative push for family values were the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. By then, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority had already forged a very public nexus between conservative Christianity and the Republican party. But in 1987, investigations revealed that some whom the public and press identified as part of the monolithic "Right" weren't so moral after all. A messy sex scandal swamped Jim Bakker, then leader of the PTL Club, who went to jail for defrauding PTL viewers of more than $150 million.

In 1988, photographs of Jimmy Swaggart in the company of a prostitute torpedoed his preaching empire. In 1992, Calvary Church of Santa Ana senior pastor David Hocking admitted to having committed "sexual sins" with a woman in his congregation. In 1993, Christian broadcaster Darrow Parker resigned after confessing to "personal failures and marital infidelity." The next year, People to People radio host Bob George pleaded no-contest to soliciting a prostitute.

Fast forward to 1997, when Rev. Henry J. Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., used his position to bilk businesses and philanthropic organizations out of more than $4 million. Marital infidelity brought down Mr. Lyons, convicted in March 1999 of grand theft and racketeering; the whole ugly business came to light when Mr. Lyons's wife burned down the $700,000 home Mr. Lyons bought with his alleged mistress.

But what radio commentator Michael Medved calls the "public saint, private sinner" problem is much wider than the church. Family-values hypocrisy also extends to public figures who, whatever their personal faith, in the public's eyes still share a moral code with Christians. Newt Gingrich, who often stumped for the importance of family and a national return to "core values," last year ended his own 18-year marriage to pursue the years-long affair he'd been carrying on with congressional aide Calista Bisek.

Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston would have replaced Mr. Gingrich as Speaker of the House, but late in 1998 he admitted to serial adultery and resigned from Congress. Skeletons in the closet tormented Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), and even elder statesman Henry Hyde, tagged by Salon with an adulterous liaison that occurred 30 years before he led the Clinton impeachment inquiry.

In December 1998, The Independent, a London newspaper, succinctly summarized the lame duck syndrome that results when conservative leaders turn out to be, to paraphrase John Bunyan, saints abroad and devils at home: "They made it more difficult for Republicans ... to take the moral high ground against Mr. Clinton, and they may have discouraged representatives with a 'past' from expressing themselves too forcefully against Mr. Clinton-or speaking at all."

And therein lies the problem. Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) believes that those who hold public office but don't practice what they preach lower the standard for everyone, in part because they often become unable to uphold standards. "If my marriage falls apart, it's different now than when I was an elder in the church," said Mr. DeMint, who was elected to the House in 1998. "My marriage is just as important, but now a moral failure on my part would damage a much wider circle of people."

The stakes get higher just as accountability is dropping and egos are growing, Mr. DeMint says. "Now I'm 'The Congressman,' no matter how hard my friends and I try to avoid it. Part of leadership is isolation. That's one reason we see great men fall so often and so badly-that you are isolated even if you don't want to be.... The more spotlight you get on you, the more people are saying great things about you, and you start believing it, and the fewer people you have around you who will say, 'Man you're out of line.'"

Mr. DeMint concluded: "I look at somebody like a Mike Trout ... and I've got to realize, hey, something snuck up on those guys. Who was covering their backs? You've got to have some courageous, brutally honest friends who are not impressed by whatever title you have."

How big is the problem among church ministers? According to a national study of 4,000 active pastors over a 10-year period conducted by counselors at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Calif., and completed in 1998, one in five pastors admits to indulging in "sexually inappropriate" behavior with someone who was not his wife since the time he first became involved with some local ministry.

That period may span many decades and many definitions of "inappropriate," but ministers such as Chuck Smith, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Calif., say they have seen an increase in moral failure among Christians in public ministry. Mr. Smith's own ministry exploded during the late 1960s Jesus movement, eventually spinning off 800 affiliated churches, dozens of parachurch groups, and numerous radio outreaches.

"I was shocked when I read about Mike [Trout] ... I was hurt," Mr. Smith said, but then added, "I've been seeing too many moral failures." He says a rise in church use of broadcast media has increased the problem. "We didn't have these mega-churches or the development of this star-status," he said of earlier decades. Now, "there's some sort of magical aura when people see you on TV or hear you on the radio. It puts you in a 'star' category, so when people come around, they're in awe, sometimes in almost worshipful adoration."

David Carder, associate pastor of counseling ministries at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, says, "There's a sense of entitlement that comes with an elevated position." Mr. Carder, author of Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs (Moody Press 1995), has studied the issue of moral failure, particularly among clergy, for 25 years. "Men in powerful positions often begin to believe they're kind of 'above the law.' They tend to think they can get away with questionable behavior and so they begin to take advantage of their positions."

Chuck Smith says Christian leaders, particularly those in the public eye, must be "constantly on guard. I have discovered that Satan often attacks at our strongest point rather than our weakest. In an area where I feel I am strong, I am prone to trust in my own strength instead of trusting in the Lord. That's when I am more vulnerable."

But it's not only Christian leaders who are vulnerable to the fallout of moral failure. Jeff McIlwaine, a landscaper and father of three in Bradenton, Fla., says his 15-year-old daughter asks tough questions in the wake of scandals involving public figures. "She says to me, 'Dad, why can't these people just do what they say they're going to do?'" Mr. McIlwaine explains. "Kids have a very high sense of scrutiny.... They are looking for leaders who are what they say they're going to be. When those leaders fail, who do they have to look to?"

Charles Ballard, president and founder of the Initiative for Responsible Fatherhood, remembers leading an abstinence workshop with a group of inner-city fathers who were struggling to walk a straight moral path: "Questions were raised in the group, which was mostly teenagers. The questions were along the lines of 'How about this guy Swaggart? He has a wife, he has a family and here he's out here [having sex with other women].'" Mr. Ballard concludes, "It's the believer who preaches one thing and lives another that most hurts the cause of Christ."

San Diego youth pastor and Bethel Seminary graduate Rich West, 29, says he labors under the yoke of an increasing public cynicism toward Christianity. "I think the culture has been inoculated by us and our moral failures," he said. "I believe that people now expect that pastors and clergy will fall morally ... it's just so common that it's expected."

He may be right, and the mainstream press, long unfriendly to both Christians and secular conservatives, delights in piling on. In the two weeks after Mr. Trout admitted his affair, The Washington Post and other newspapers heralded the news of his infidelity and resignation. Foreign newspapers such as The Moscow Times cackled, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh seems to be mighty weak over at the breast-beating, hymn-singing, gay-bashing, Bush-backing, Clinton-hating, card-carrying hardcore Christianite political faction known as Focus on the Family."

Chuck Smith calls such aspersions "one of the great, sad byproducts of moral failure ... fodder to the outsider to discredit the things of the Lord." In the eye of the cynic, the failure of some Christians to uphold moral standards invalidates the standards themselves. But the biblical approach is to set high standards, with the realization, as Rep. DeMint puts it, that "Christians, by definition, are still sinners ... we don't become perfect."

Mr. Ballard agrees: "None of us can say we don't sin. However, a Christian is held to a higher accountability, because he should have the divine nature and the Holy Spirit on his side.... The line between righteousness and unrighteousness is really getting very, very thin. We have to put a brick wall up between the two and say this is how men and women of God should live."

Part of that wall is built by prayer: "Lead me not into temptation" should be on the lips of every leader with admiring followers. Part should consist of basic precautions: the Billy Graham rule for leaders-don't be behind closed, windowless doors with a member of the opposite sex-needs faithful following. Part should be accountability procedures, preferably within a local church, where men report to each other the early stages of restlessness and thus corral it in time.

But some of those bricks also need to be tough penalties when leaders violate the trust placed in them. Radio commentator Michael Medved contrasted the falls of Mr. Trout and Mr. Clinton: Mike Trout acknowledged his sin and resigned; Focus on the Family then accepted his resignation. Mr. Clinton lied, and admitted making a mistake only when an investigative glare and DNA evidence gave him no choice; he then refused to resign, and the U.S. Senate refused to fire him. "Owning up manfully ... and accepting the consequences," Mr. Medved explained, "can affirm that religious standards do mean something."

Tough discipline rather than crocodile tears is also the best route to true reconciliation. The world needs to see churches promoting Christian restoration as the goal of discipline-but seeing the evidence of a changed heart over time is crucial. "There's a difference between recognizing a wrong and justifying it, and I'm afraid that's getting muddled today," said Mr. DeMint. "When we recognize that a wrong has been committed by someone in leadership who professes to be a Christian and promotes family values, I think it's incumbent on fellow believers to ask that person to step down." The "family values" movement can only regain its credibility if those who value it demand high standards from all those who defend high standards.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.