National Voices

Friday, Aug 24 2012 11:03 PM

The parable of the two congressmen

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    Michael Gerson

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By MICHAEL GERSON

Take two congressmen -- I am tempted to say, please. One exposes his, well, equipment in the Holy Land. The other exposes his ignorance and pride. Who is the more sacrilegious?

It sounds a bit like a parable, which I suppose it is. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., has apologized for taking a "spontaneous and very brief dive" into the Sea of Galilee without benefit of swimwear. The press piously notes that this is the place where Jesus walked on water. Joe Scarborough accuses the Republican of "messing all over this holy site" and predicts outrage in the Christian base.

If Yoder took his moonlight dip in inappropriate company -- the accounts remain unclear on this point -- it represents a serious lapse of judgment. If the issue is trunkless swimming, Yoder is probably in good biblical company. It is impossible to imagine that a bunch of first-century Galilean fishermen would not have occasionally jumped naked over the side of their boat. Yoder was not stripping off at the Lourdes grotto. He was swimming in a recreational lake where water-skiing is also known to take place. I don't suppose that Jesus -- who inhabited an actual human society, not a cardboard creche -- would find either act surprising or inherently immoral.

(I hasten to add that I am not a practitioner of naked swimming. But this results from both repression and a sense of the ridiculous -- neither of which is a moral virtue.)

The whole accusation of impiety in the sacred waters of the Galilee requires a reinterpretation of the New Testament in which the Pharisees become the heroes. Jesus was continually charged with being an enemy of conventional piety and propriety -- which, indeed, he was. You can easily imagine his opponents saying: Doesn't he consort with tax collectors, Sabbath-violators, winebibbers and skinny-dippers? To which he would have responded with a tart remark about whitewashed tombs or viper broods and moved on. It was a central element of his teaching that the state of the heart matters infinitely more than human rules or public religiosity.

Which is why Rep. Todd Akin -- as of this writing, still the Republican senatorial candidate in Missouri -- is swimming in more dangerous waters.

His comment -- "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" -- was based on crackpot science. Being an opponent of sex education in the schools does not require a politician to have a poor grasp of human biology. And this is especially counterproductive in a pro-life politician, because advancing knowledge of biology has generally favored the pro-life cause by revealing the humanity of a developing child. It is the extreme pro-choice position that requires the ignoring of an eighth-month sonogram.

But Akin's statement was not only bad science; it lacked in sympathy. Even a response to a hypothetical question on rape requires genuine outrage at rape itself and clear empathy for its victims. It is especially jarring when a vocally religious leader seems unmoved by suffering. Akin's statement came about the same time as Pat Robertson's recent warning against international adoption: "I've got a dear friend, an adopted son, a little kid from an orphanage down in Colombia. Child had brain damage, grew up weird. And you just never know what's been done to a child before you get that child. ... You don't have to take on somebody else's problems. You really don't."

It is a much more shocking form of exhibitionism than skinny-dipping for a public figure to display his hard heart.

Akin, like many caught in error, seems increasingly convinced of his own virtue. The "party bosses" are out to get him. The "liberal elites" want to discredit his conservative views. But the uniformity of Republican and conservative sentiment for Akin's replacement on the ballot has removed every plausible reason for his resistance save one: pride. He does not want to be seen as a "quitter." This is emotionally understandable. But it is a coping mechanism, not an electoral strategy.

It is an article of faith among movement conservatives that causes are more important than politicians trying to preserve their careers. Akin has ceased to sacrifice for his cause and begun asking it to sacrifice for him. Stripped of excuses, this is vanity.

Of two embarrassed congressman, only one continues to expose himself.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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