Adultery, Unemployment and the Moral Law

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Adultery, Unemployment and the Moral Law

Okay, so let me get this straight. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, the director of the CIA (married with two children), had an affair with Paula Broadwell (married with two children), a journalist, academic, anti-terrorism expert and Petraeus’ principal biographer who was sending anonymous threatening emails to Jill Kelley, socialite and self-appointed “social liaison” for military brass in Florida. Kelley reported the emails to the FBI, and the FBI agent handling the case responded by sending her photos of himself sans shirt. Meanwhile, Kelley had been pen pals with General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to the tune of more than 20,000 pages of email. (How did they generate that much email? Didn’t the general have anything else to do in Afghanistan?)

My suggestion is that the FBI turn this whole sordid mess over to TMZ and the supermarket tabloids. Having covered the inane coupling and uncoupling of celebrities for years, they alone have the expertise to sort this out.

Any way you look at it, though, we have a scandal of epic proportions. Or do we?

Marina Ein, in a letter to the Washington Post, argues that all we have is a useless relic of a bygone era. “It is time for Americans to get out of each other’s bedrooms,” she writes. “While these scandals ignite media and political hand-wringing, they are the pathetic artifacts of a Puritan era that long ago should have been shown the door.”

She notes that we have a “seemingly endless fascination with affairs.” Careers are ruined, she laments, and our national attention is distracted from issues that matter. It’s all the more tragic since “whatever betrayal occurred was personal, not professional.”

The root cause of our prurient fascination with the sexual misadventures of public figures, she says, is the Puritans. “We are now nearly 400 years beyond the arrival of the Mayflower. But, in matters private and sexual, we might as well be under the direction of Capt. John Smith.”

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I guess the Puritans seemed like a good news hook. And, after all, ignorance about what the Puritans actually believed about sex, marriage and just about everything else make them easy targets.

But Ein could have just as easily faulted the Anglican colonists, the Catholic colonists or the Quakers. She could have blamed the Lutherans or the Moravians or even the Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus immigrating in recent years. The last I checked, all of these have strong beliefs in marriage and equally strong strictures against adultery — particularly adultery by leaders. Even the Soviet Union, not exactly a bastion of religious fervor, criminalized adultery. Could it be the fault of the Communists?

But what is going on cannot be attributed to the Puritans or any other group. There is something deeper and more human at work that contradicts Ein’s boys-will-be-boys-so-let-it-pass solution.

As University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski wrote in What We Can’t Not Know, “However rude it may be these days to say so, there are some moral truths we all really know — truths which a normal human being is unable not to know. They are a universal possession, an emblem of rational mind, an heirloom of the family of man.”

One of those moral truths that we can’t not know is “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18). And so when the story of Tiger Woods’ manifold adulteries broke, our local sports talk station went into Focus on the Family mode. The talkers, who no one could accuse of latent Puritanism and who routinely approve of cohabitation and premarital sex, vociferously defended the sanctity of marriage and condemned Woods for his adultery. If you’re willing to betray your spouse, they argued, what are you not willing to betray?

They and we know that people who break the sacred trust of marriage should not be trusted and we don’t need Capt. John Smith to tell us. It is one of the many things we can’t avoid knowing and it’s a vivid reminder that morality is objective.

To find out how the Petraeus saga will end, what — if anything — it has to do with the attack on our compound in Benghazi, and how many others will be implicated, stay tuned — assuming you have the stomach for it. But this much is certain: as much as some try to suppress it with trendy relativism, the moral law cannot be kept at bay. It always reasserts itself. Some things are right and some things, including adultery, are wrong everywhere and always. And it’s impossible not to know it.

Publication date: November 14, 2012