Nathaniel Frank

Haggard, Foley and GOP Preach Against the Vices They Can't Shake

Editor's Note: Also on AlterNet, check out Ted Haggard's admission of "some indiscretions."

In the latest sign of rank hypocrisy among social conservatives, the president of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals has resigned amidst accusations that he had a relationship with a male prostitute. Ted Haggard, who is married with five children, is a frequent adviser to the White House, and a staunch advocate of banning marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

The news, of course, comes just a month after Florida GOP Congressman, Mark Foley, who had pushed legislation to protect youth from "exploitation by adults using the internet," was revealed to be an internet sexual predator. And it adds to the sense among weary voters that their leaders, especially if they happen to be Republicans, cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Indeed, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee acknowledged he had been aware of Foley's inappropriate emails for months, but took no steps to protect the children who were in harm's way. Instead, he spearheaded a series of TV ads attacking a Democratic challenger for, yes, being soft on child molesters.

What are we to make of a reigning conservative regime that lists the following inglorious claims to fame: Strom Thurmond, a notoriously racist senator who turned out to have a black lover; a Republican indictment of President Clinton's sexual license headed up by a team of philanderers; a Congress full of divorces passing an anti-gay law known as the "Defense of Marriage Act"?

In the pundit corner, we recently saw three giants of conservative moralizing unmasked as incapable of restraining their own vices: William Bennett turned out to be addicted to gambling, Rush Limbaugh to drugs. Meanwhile, Ralph Reed, the hand-picked youthful leader of the religious right, was quietly helping the corrupt lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, enable everything that religious conservatives oppose: casinos on Indian reservations and compelled abortions and sex slavery in the Northern Mariana Islands, an American territory.

And this is not even to mention the Catholic Church's strident indictment of sexual freedom as it shuffled its own cadre of child-molesting priests from parish to parish.

The cover-ups and power grabs, of course, are simply raw politics. But the pattern here may reveal something more striking than the obvious reality that those in power will sacrifice almost anything to stay there. The Republican Party appears to be chock full of people who make a life of preaching against the very vices they can't shake. Why?

For answers to the puzzles that seem to infest the conservative worldview, we might dust off our old Freud texts. From the father of psychoanalysis, we learn the concept of "reaction formation" which describes how we react to our own unacceptable impulses. Reaction formation is a classic "defense mechanism" -- an unconscious behavior designed to ward off uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes we react to our discomfort with ourselves in harmless ways, such as when a man cheats on his wife and brings her flowers to ease his guilt. Other times, the reactions can be punitive-we judge and condemn others who exhibit the very impulses that we, ourselves, cannot control. This is frequently the case when dealing with lust or greed.

"Sooner or later," writes Michael Warner, a Professor of English at Rutgers and a leading theorist of sexuality and politics, "we all lose control over our sex life. As a result, we try to control someone else's sex life."

Reaction formation is one of the few explanations that help us make sense of all the hypocritical moralizing: the preachers are preaching to themselves!

What is the solution to this misplaced effort to restrict others' behavior? For Freud, it was therapy. But more broadly, it's a dose of introspection, an ability to look inward, and to shift focus from others' behavior to our own. If hypocrisy in American political life is, in part, a symptom of inadequate introspection, if our fear that we can't control ourselves leads to an unconscious effort to control others, we'll continue to reach for a magnifying glass when what we really need is a mirror.

Republicans have no monopoly on hypocrisy. Most of us are guilty, at one time or another, of vocally denouncing something we ourselves have done, of shifting focus away from our own foibles by hoisting them onto others.

But a Party with a peculiar penchant for condemning in others what they can't overcome in themselves is a Party resting on shaky ground, especially if it professes self-control as a cornerstone of its governing philosophy. Social conservatives must be called on their hypocrisy, not simply as a matter of justice, but so that Americans can fully understand the roots and impact of the politics of moral judgment. Virtue, it's true, is necessary to a healthy democracy; but it begins inside.
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