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Mark Sanford's Dilemma and the Quest for the Good: II

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In the previous entry on this theme, I suggested that --judging from his statements about his relationship with the woman in Argentina-- Mark Sanford had found something of importance, something indeed connected with the sacred, in that relationship. Whether or not Sanford would be wise to abandon that relationship and rebuild his marriage, I said, it would be good if the decisions he makes could be based on a full understanding of the meaning of what he discovered in that "forbidden" relationship.

But it is not clear that the conservative Christian culture in which Sanford is embedded is equipped by its worldview to help him in this quest for wisdom and understanding.

One "spiritual group advisor" "thinks his friend, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, was caught off guard by 'the power of darkness' when he started an affair with an Argentine woman." [quote from news article]

"The power of darkness." To see the relationship simply in these terms is to focus only on the forbiddenness of the relationship. It is "adultery"; it is a violation of his marital oath.

These are not unimportant aspects of the situation. But it gives no attention at all to the other, very powerful and also very positive aspect of the relationship. Sanford says he found a "soul mate," and his words indicate that in that bond he experienced, all together, a loving connection of bodies and hearts and souls. As I said in the earlier post, "It does not get much more whole than that."

But this conservative Christian worldview does not stress wholeness. It stresses a top-down kind of order, in which the part of the order that is below is regarded as of value primarily in terms of its being subordinated to the order imposed by that which is above.

"God hates lawlessness and is tireless in His desire to dissuade man from his fascination with lawlessness," reads a paper [by Sanford's apparently most valued spiritual advisor, "Cubby" Culbertson]. "Our hearts are lions' dens of devouring lusts. Lawlessness torments righteous souls every day."

The relationship with the wife is within God's law, and that with the Argentine woman is a violation of that law. So, in that worldview, the paramount consideration seems to be that the Sanfords are bound by a promise made to God. And in that worldview, the relationship with the Argentine is seen, by contrast, as a reflection of "the power of darkness."

Again, I do not question the validity of those considerations. It is their adequacy I question, because the top-down view of things fails in crucial ways to capture the centrality of Wholeness to the sacred and the Good. (It is not GOD's good that can be paramount; the God of Christianity is already perfect, needing nothing. It is the good of needful, suffering human beings --including of course Sanford's family-- that God's law, if it is to be of value, must serve.)

Culbertson is quoted as saying this about marriage, and the Sanford's in particular:

For most Christians, at some point in your marriage, if you're married long enough, you do it because that's what we're called to do - out of obedience instead of out of passion. And I think that's where Mark and Jenny are right now.""

There are two possible readings of that statement. One possible interpretation it admits of is this: "After a certain point in a marriage, you stick around because you SHOULD, not because you FEEL like it." But perhaps that's not the intended meaning. Perhaps it is, rather: "In the course of a long marriage, a couple may well go through a time where it is duty rather than desire that keeps people together."

The second meaning is unobjectionable: a marriage may well require working through difficult times, using the COMMITMENT of marriage to hang in there together in such times and break through to a better place.

But if it is the first meaning that's intended, what a travesty of what a marriage should be! To make it a virtue to preserve a marriage without heart and soul, all in the name of duty, is the kind of pathology of purely top-down thinking about the good that (I would suggest) is at the heart of a great many of the pathologies of the Christian right in our time. (Because when the needs of the human creature are treated as unimportant, those needs are apt to break out into expression in disorderly ways.)

One wonders what such Christians make of the statement of Paul in Corinthians, that "the letter killeth while the spirit giveth life."


In the next installment:

What is the core human and spiritual issue that connects this Sanford drama to the central problem with the Christian right?


Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)

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If someone is willing to sacrifice  a "soul m... by sometimes blinded on Saturday, Jul 4, 2009 at 1:13:01 PM
Andrew, your quotes seem to suggest that there are... by Andrew Bard Schmookler on Saturday, Jul 4, 2009 at 3:21:25 PM
To me the issue is not whether or n... by Ruth on Sunday, Jul 5, 2009 at 2:09:34 PM
I believe in fidelity, and unfaithfulness is a bet... by Andrew Bard Schmookler on Sunday, Jul 5, 2009 at 2:55:26 PM
I should have said the main issue to me is betraya... by Ruth on Sunday, Jul 5, 2009 at 5:34:04 PM