Amoral America



When Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets in hand, according to one apocryphal source, he told the assembled elders and scribes: "I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, I got him down to 10. The bad news is, adultery is still on it."
       That little joke doesn’t get the laughs it got before Bill Clinton was president. A new report by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Media Coverage of Religion in America 1969-1998, suggests one reason why. Since Clinton’s dallying with "that woman" in the Oval Office, stories about religion reflect a greater tolerance for adultery.
       In a random study of 2,365 religious news stories in the mainline media the large majority of sources and commentators tilted toward traditional morality in matters of sex — in relation to abortion, homosexuality and divorce. But when it came to extramarital affairs the researchers found a decidedly liberal trend.
       The study included religious coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the three major network evening newscasts. When the issue of extramarital sex surfaced in the 1970s and 1980s, 89 percent of those interviewed in the religious stories condemned adultery. By the 1990s, about two in five sources, 41 percent of those interviewed, voiced toleration if not approval.
       But you don’t have to look at religious-news stories to see how the White House shenanigans reflect a changed view of the adultery equation. Lee Hart, a stay-at-home mother, had nowhere to go but back into her home when husband Gary Hart’s adulterous behavior became public. Hence, the public felt a need to punish him and he was forced to withdraw from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
       Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the other hand, a full-time professional — even as first lady — garnered more power by being the victim of her husband’s infidelities. The public let her husband stay in office and their sympathy for the first lady catapulted her into a race for an available Senate seat in New York.
       Feminists have one thing right: A woman who has a husband who likes to play the tomcat needs career options. The president even helped Monica Lewinsky become an independent entrepreneur, a creator of her own signature handbags. Mistress notoriety, however, doesn’t guarantee upward mobility. (Who remembers Fanne Fox? Judith Exner went public about her affair with John F. Kennedy but he was long dead and she had lost her looks.)
       An editor of my acquaintance spoke to a suburban high-school class of would-be journalists not long ago and was surprised at how the young men and women were so nonchalant in dismissing the adulterous behavior of the president. "What’s the big deal?" one young man asked. "Everybody does it."
       The editor told the student: "I hope when you marry you find a girl who will expect more than that from you."
       The editor seemed hopelessly behind the media curve with his Old Testament standards. Indeed, the standard for measuring fidelity in marriage has shifted dramatically. Adultery, like so many postmodern moral issues, has entered the amoral sphere of relativity. The American public seems not only to be more tolerant toward it but to make personal distinctions. Before New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani unceremoniously announced his separation from his wife when he had not even bothered to tell her and the children, the spin on his adultery was that it "humanized him."
       The less accomplished the Lothario the more offensive he seems to be. Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon was forced out of office for trying to kiss unwilling women in an elevator. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was given a pass for lots of reasons, one being that Lewinsky said she enjoyed the seductive attention of a powerful cad.
       When Annette Lawson, a British sociologist, researched sexual morality in the late 1980s for her book Adultery, she found that men typically have more extramarital affairs than women but that opportunities for adultery depend on the kind of work a person does and how that work reinforces sexual stereotypes.
       "Those men who were in the traditional male-dominated professions (business, accountancy, law, for example) and those women who were in typically female-dominated occupations (nursing, social work, teaching) had the same number of liaisons as expected," she writes. "When, however, we looked at the men who had entered the ‘female’ professions or occupations and the women who had entered the ‘male’ spheres, then these women ‘looked like’ men and these men ‘looked like’ women in the number of their liaisons."
       No matter how open-minded Americans say they have become in relation to adultery among their political leaders, it’s no coincidence that both Al Gore and George W. Bush come to the presidential campaign with marriages that are quite different than that of Bill and Hillary. Americans yearn for a restoration of integrity in the Oval Office, and it helps to have a sense that the marriages of the presidential candidates aren’t so messy that husband and wife must go on 60 Minutes to try to explain away blatant infidelity.
       Besides, in the matter of oaths given and taken before Almighty God it might not be a good idea to parse lawyerly reasons why adultery doesn’t count. The public might say it doesn’t care, but one gets the idea that everyone knows Almighty God still does.

By Suzanne Fields



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