“May one be pardon’d and retain the offense?”

Ross Douthat has some harsh words for Christians who are thinking of crowning Newt Gingrich with moral and political authority:

Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: A rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like gay marriage, and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era. To many younger Americans, religious conservatism as they know it often seems to stand for a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy — a right-wing Tartufferie that’s incensed by the idea of gay wedlock but tolerant of straight divorce, forgiving of Republican sins but judgmental about Democratic indiscretions, and eager to apply moral litmus tests only on issues that benefit the political right.

Rallying around Newt Gingrich, effectively making him the face of Christian conservatism in this Republican primary season, would ratify all of these impressions. It isn’t just that he’s a master of selective moral outrage whose newfound piety has been turned to consistently partisan ends. It’s that his personal history — not only the two divorces, but also the repeated affairs and the way he behaved during the dissolution of his marriages — makes him the most compromised champion imaginable for a movement that’s laboring to keep lifelong heterosexual monogamy on a legal and cultural pedestal.

Over in the combox at Dreher’s blog, Edward Hamilton makes a striking point:

Divorce has always been uniquely problematic . . . because it has a mechanism (the subsequent remarriage) that locks the sinner into permanent enjoyment of the fruits of his sin. I suspect that’s why it’s singled out as a qualification for the episcopal office in Paul’s epistle to Timothy. A person who is not “the husband of one wife” is someone who is unable to express genuine repentance, since any attempt at reconciliation with the first wife is a betrayal of the second. Other sexual misconduct (premarital promiscuity, homosexuality, etc) doesn’t have the same indelible consequences.

I think this is a reason that Jesus focuses more particularly on divorce than other specific categories of sexual sin (or even sin in general). Even a murderer can repent in a way that doesn’t involve continuing to live a murderous lifestyle. But an adulterer who obtains a second wife is going to be an adulterer for life, whether by betraying the first vows, the second vows, or both at once.

As Claudius discovered too late.

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