ANALYSIS | Neil Macdonald: Sex, sin and redemption in America

The sex scandal that forced Herman Cain to withdraw from the Republican presidential nomination race is the latest example of America's self-proclaimed defenders of moral rectitude getting caught preaching one thing and doing the opposite.

A romp through the moral low ground with some of America's fallen preachers, politicians

A billboard in Atlanta in September 2010 shows Bishop Eddie Long next to the motto 'Love Like Him, Live Like Him, Lead Like Him,' which refers to Jesus Christ but takes on quite different connotations in light of Long's recent resignation as pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church over accusations that he coerced young male members of his congregation into having sex with him. (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

Three guesses — no, make that just one. You shouldn't need any more than one to answer this:

Why is Bishop Eddie Long, the gay-bashing, family-values-preaching pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist megachurch in Atlanta, giving up his post?

Well, officially, it's because he wants to save his marriage. His wife wants a divorce.

But you have to suspect it also has something to do with what's presumably the reason she wants the divorce: namely, the five young men, one of them 15 years old, who have accused Long of using gifts and trips to seduce them into having sex with him.

In short, it would appear that Long, who once called gay sex "spiritual abortion," was a pretty enthusiastic abortionist himself, at least in the eyes of the community that shares his world view.

The honey trap

Of course, it's especially rich when judgmental loudmouths who attack gays from pulpits are themselves caught in what spy agencies call the honey trap.

My favourite is Rev. Ted Haggard, former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, a man who gave spiritual advice to former president George W. Bush and who preached that homosexuality is an abomination.

In late 2006, a male prostitute in Denver started telling stories about Haggard hiring him for sex sessions during which the pastor snorted crystal meth.

Ted Haggard, the former megachurch pastor who was caught up in a sex scandal involving a male prostitute, with his wife, Gayle, at a news conference at their home in Colorado Springs, Colo., in June 2010. (Ed Andrieski, file/Associated Press)

Haggard first lied and tried to hang on, but after his own megachurch forced him out for "sexual immorality," he owned up to most of the allegations.

There was Rev. Stephen White, famous for his anti-gay sermons and infamous after police charged him with soliciting sex from a 14-year-old boy in Pennsylvania, and Grant Storms, the renowned anti-gay Louisiana pastor charged earlier this year with obscenity after parents complained he'd been masturbating in a van while watching children play in a park.

If you include anti-gay politicians, the list lengthens dramatically. It includes the famous, such as Larry Craig, the U.S. senator charged with soliciting gay sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom in 2007, and Mark Foley, the congressman who crusaded against sexual predators until he resigned his seat in 2006 over graphic email exchanges with male congressional pages.

There are also lesser figures, such as Bob Allen, the anti-gay Florida representative who paid an undercover policeman for oral sex.

I could go on and on, just citing anti-gay-rights moral-majority conservatives who have strayed from the straight path. 

Slimeballs aplenty

But if you take the view that there is no moral distinction between gay sex and straight sex, the crowd of men (yes, almost always men) caught preaching one thing and doing exactly the opposite doesn't just cross party lines. It could fill a concert venue.

Herman Cain, who just quit the Republican presidential nomination race, is the latest. The four women who accused him of sexual misconduct, and the fifth who claimed to have had a 13-year affair with the family-values conservative, were all liars, he proclaimed as he nevertheless exited the race Saturday.

Anthony Weiner, the rising Democratic star in Congress, first lied about emailing pictures of his crotch to a woman who followed him on Twitter, then fessed up and quit earlier this year.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford deceived not just his wife but the whole state when he pretended to be on a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail while actually visiting his mistress in Argentina. (Joshua Drake /Reuters)

Mark Sanford, the married and deeply religious Republican governor of South Carolina, lied to the whole state about taking a break from state business to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail, when in fact he was snuggling with his mistress in Argentina.

And John Edwards earned Slimeball of the Year status after fathering a child behind his cancer-stricken wife's back while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, then, of course, lying about it, then confessing once there was nowhere left to hide.

All of this raises the question reporters and political scientists have posed forever: how in heaven's name could any of these guys have thought there was any chance this stuff wouldn't come out?

Did Cain think he could make it to the White House without the National Restaurant Association's legal settlement with the women who complained about him becoming public?

Did Edwards, a renowned trial lawyer, seriously believe he could become president with a mistress and newborn infant tucked away and paid off with campaign contributions (something for which he now faces federal charges)?

Norman Orenstein, a political scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute here in Washington, theorizes:

"These people have a different mindset and a different ego drive than the rest of the human race. They think they're superhuman. That's why they get into this business in the first place.… It's breathtakingly naive."

Then again, they may have known the dirt would come out but took the shot anyway.

The comeback

And why not?

Bill Clinton, the all-time extramarital champ, hung onto the presidency and remains a revered figure. His rather uninspiring explanation for having seduced a young intern during his time in office? "Because I could."

U.S. President Bill Clinton talks with Pastor J. Philip Wogaman as he leaves the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington on Feb. 9, 1999. Wogaman counseled Clinton after he admitted he had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (Khue Bui File/Associated Press)

David Vitter, the married Republican lawmaker who acknowledged using prostitutes in 2007 was re-elected to the Senate in 2010.

Eliot Spitzer, the Democrat who once governed New York, bounced back amazingly quickly after that cringe-worthy televised 2008 confession (with Mrs. Spitzer looking on miserably) about using the services of a $1,000 prostitute.

And Newt Gingrich, who was carrying on an extramarital affair with a Hill staffer while simultaneously trying to have Clinton removed from the Oval Office for the same behaviour, has now made his way to the head of the Republican presidential pack, taking Cain's top spot in the polls.

But all those comeback guys, and others, do have one other thing in common: each, in his own way, has done a version of the preacher Jimmy Swaggart's soul-baring 1988 performance after he was caught with a prostitute (in a sting arranged by another philandering cleric Swaggart had exposed two years earlier).

"I have sinned against you, my lord," declared Swaggart, face contorted in spiritual agony, in a televised confession before his Assemblies of God Church. "And I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgiveness."

That's the best thing about a career in the moralizing racket (politics or religion): the Big Redemption. It is, in a sense, the American dream.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.