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The third rail

Thou shalt not connect personal lives and policy proposals

The third rail

(Krieg Barrie)

Sex is a powerful motivator. Millions of abused kids develop a pattern of sexual response that’s hard to break even when they know it is yucky. Millions of young adults cohabit, and some slide into marriage because they’re used to the sex even after the romance is gone. (The post-cohabitation divorce rate is apparently worse than the rate among those who have never lived together.)

The major subject of this column, though, is older adults, and particularly leaders. What role does lust play in shaping not only personal lives but thinking about politics and society? That may seem an odd question, for since the Clinton-Lewinsky affair we have learned to compartmentalize private and public—but it was not strange for Christian thinkers throughout the ages.

Augustine, for example, understood that Adam and Eve initially had a unity and harmony between body and soul. They understood their dependence on God, who had commanded them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their task was to glorify Him by obeying. Then, tragically, they fell into what Augustine called “the fundamental and gravest vice … the overweening pride by which one wishes to have independence to his own ruin. … It is impossible for the will of a man not to come tumbling down on him with a thunderous and devastating crash if he exalts it” above God.

As David Hunter writes in Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Baker, 2016), Augustine thought “the sin of Adam and Eve had damaged human nature and that one symptom of this damage was a disorder in the way that sexual desire, or libido, now operates in humans.” Sex between husband and wife, in obedience to God, is good, but adultery indicates “the vice of pride, [which] lies at the root of a vicious self-love—one that ignores the common good and looks to domination. [Ungodly libido] was merely a microcosm, though also the starting point, of the broader social fractures wrought by sin.”

What would Augustine have said about walking libidos like Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly? Scholar Margaret Miles has noted that the tendency to separate sexual lust from the “lust for domination” is a recent, modern invention. In short, Augustine and others saw the desire for autocratic political or media power to be, in Hunter’s words, “merely the social extension of the more personal lust of sexual desire.”

I still believe that personal adultery is often a leading indicator of governing adultery.

Making that connection now is the third rail of American political discourse. The applied Augustinianism in one book of mine, The American Leadership Tradition, came under fierce attack. And Fox’s recent firing of O’Reilly, after it had paid out millions in an attempt to hush sexual harassment allegations, reminded me of the advice a lovely young producer gave me just before my one appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. I don’t remember the exact words, but the essence was: Get him riled up, he wants to dominate you.

One PR misstep by public intellectual Niall Ferguson shows that making the private-public connection is still grounds for electrocution. Ferguson, like any frequent column writer (including me), has erred at times, but his only fervid apology came four years ago. He had suggested that British economist John Maynard Keynes’ homosexuality and childlessness were factors in his advocacy of deficit spending and his nonconcern about its long-run consequences.

Ferguson abjectly wrote: “My disagreements with Keynes’ economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life. … I deeply and unreservedly apologize.”

Keynes was apparently bisexual, but Ferguson’s conclusion seems otherwise truthful. Keynes famously minimized some long-range consequences by saying, “In the long run, we are all dead.” (Yes, but our children and grandchildren remain.) It is simply true that personal experience and policy recommendations interweave—and neither Augustine nor other sages apologized for connecting the dots.

I still believe that personal adultery is often a leading indicator of governing adultery. The connection is not absolute, and people can mature; but lifelong recklessness and lifelong discipline do not go together like a horse and carriage.


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  • PaulC
    Posted: Mon, 05/08/2017 05:19 am

    Thank you Marvin for pointing this out.

  •  Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Sat, 05/20/2017 11:03 am

    Yet as Erick Fromm points out in his book "Escape from Freedom" AND as we can surmise with the popularity of very badly done movies such as Fifty Shades:  many people actually desire to be dominated.  Jesus Christ liberates.  Yes we serve and subject ourselves to him.  Yet otherwise the Son has set us free, and we are free indeed!  

  • E Cole
    Posted: Sat, 05/20/2017 11:47 pm

    Thank you for this article.