This week two sex scandals - one involving a national political figure and one a prominent pastor - are making national headlines. Sadly, it's not the first time nor will it be the last we will see these types of stories surface. But as a Christian and a journalist, I am asking myself how I should view and report them.
As I write this column, Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) and pastor Bob Coy of Florida both have stories on the main page of The Christian Post and other national media sites highlighting their sins and moral failures. McAllister, a married congressman, for a leaked video of him kissing a staff member at a Christmas party and Coy has resigned because of past "moral failures" that appears to be a sexual affair.
In the interest of full disclosure, I understand exactly how these two men feel.
In 2009, while serving in the Tennessee State Senate, I had an affair with an intern in my office that was revealed after her boyfriend attempted to extort money from me. As a born-again Christian before, during and after my sin, the shame and embarrassment is and can be overwhelming for these men and their families. For someone who is a Christian, the stigma is even worse, especially from non-believers or opponents who are joyous in the fact that a Christian has fallen to the same sins they vowed to uphold.
Were they hypocritical in their actions given their professed Christian beliefs? Yes, and such criticism is fair and justified. But as Christians, we should try and help our fallen brothers find their way back.
Religious beliefs aside, these stories are worthy of news coverage. In fact, it is our duty as journalists to report the facts as we know and uncover them, be they Democrat or Republican, Christian or atheist.
The sad reality is: sex sells. For example, is it more enticing to read about a congressman in an inappropriate and sinful situation or about disagreements with the House budget plan? Is it more exciting to see a front-page story about a pastor having an affair than to read about the controversy surrounding building plans for a new youth center? I think you get my point. Sex sells and it sells big.
Secular media editors and reporters are hoping these stories will have a long shelf life so they can, in turn, get more hits and sell more papers, thus generating more advertising revenue to feed the bottom line. That's simply the business of journalism.
But as Christian journalists, do we have a biblical responsibility to report these stories in a different manner? I believe we do.
We'll obviously cover and write the scandalous and salacious headlines that will grab your attention. We will point out that adultery or sex outside of marriage is a sin (the same sin as homosexuality), but we also have the responsibility of addressing forgiveness, reconciliation and how these men can be redeemed in the eyes of God.
Ron Edmondson is a pastor and former city councilman in Clarksville, Tenn., and understands the public scrutiny placed on both. In a phone conversation we had Wednesday, pastor Edmondson and I talked about the public pressure that both of these men will have to endure for the next few years, and even for the rest of their lives.
"What they need is time alone with their families and pastors, hopefully with no outside involvement, to work through the many issues they are faced with," said Edmondson. "But unlike the average couple in my church, they won't have that luxury."
Edmondson also wrote a post on his blog this week titled, "7 (Actually 8) Truths About Pastors Who Disappoint You." They could easily be changed slightly to apply to politicians. Here is the short list and you can read his analysis on his web site.
- One person, working on behalf of self, can't destroy the work of the Holy Spirit, working on behalf of God.
- Pastors - and even a local body - come and go.
- People will deceive you - even some pastors.
- Pastors lead.
- Just because we preach truth, doesn't meant we've always mastered it.
- Pastors are often skilled at acting like everything is okay - even when it isn't.
- A pastor is less likely to be transparent with unpredictable outcomes.
- We need help. All pastors do.
Another issue Christian journalists will face is how to deal with the many other accusations that will come forward from others seeking to further destroy God's kingdom.
People will come forward and start calling for the heads of these men, especially McAllister's.
Conservative columnist Rod Dreher posted his thoughts on the Louisiana politician Tuesday, echoing what many in the congressman's district may be thinking:
This guy, my congressman, for whom I voted, blaming the liberals for everything, exploiting his wife and children to get himself elected, then running off and having an affair with his friend's wife. Thanks, Dad, you're a prince. Vance McAllister has got to be the sleaziest politician in Louisiana, and brother, that's saying something.
UPDATE: Sorry if this seems excessive, but I absolutely cannot abide a man who does this to his wife and children, and to another family. If I hadn't voted for him, and if he hadn't run on being such a fine family man, I wouldn't give it a second thought. He's only been in office for a few months. He should resign and go home and beg for mercy from his wife and children, and never let us hear from him again.
After reading Dreher's comments, we commuicated via email so I could get more clarity on his statement. He said he wasn't challenging McAllister's religious views as much as he was his selfish behavior.
"McAllister was a guy who trotted his wife and kids out constantly to show what a good family man he was, unlike all those Washington politicians who lose touch with what's real," wrote Dreher. "Had he not made such a big deal of his character, and specifically used his status as a husband and father to sell his candidacy, I wouldn't have batted an eye. I mean, it would still have been a bad deal, his adultery, but he wouldn't have been such a hypocrite. I think part of the intensity of my reaction had to do with the fact that this happened so quickly. This wasn't something that came upon a man who had been in political life for some time, and who let his standards slip. McAllister has been in office for only a few months."
Dreher's comments are valid and will resonate with some. Yet it's where we go from here as Christians that I believe is important.
We can all write headlines containing adjectives designed to entice someone to click on our stories, but as responsible Christian journalists we should be writing about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation too. After all, people in sin, regardless of whether they have a genuine heart for God's Word or not, need to hear the good news of God's mercy and saving grace.
Both Dreher and Ross Douthat, a columist for The New York Times, have referenced John Profumo, a former British politician whose affair was exposed in the 1960's. After resigning from office, he served the poor of England for the next 40 years, gaining recogniation as a national hero before his death. This example demostrates that many want to see signs of genuine repentance following such a public sin. I agree and to my point, we should encourage those who stubble to embrace such humilty prior to raking them over the coals for their poor and inappropriate decisions.
It's too early to predict what the next few months or years hold for Coy and McAllister. I have one pastor friend who had an affair with his secretary several years ago, and is now back in the pulpit preaching God's Word and his marriage is stronger than ever. Others have disappeared, never to be heard.
One incredible story is that of Justin and Trish Davis. While serving as the senior pastor at a Midwest church, Justin had an affair with a fellow staff member who happened to be one of Trish's best friends.
After a period of separation, prayer and reconciliation, the couple now shares their story. Justin serves as a part-time pastor at Cross Point Church in Nashville, and he and Trish have co-authored a book, Beyond Ordinary: When a Good Marriage Isn't Good Enough. This couple is a shining example in a world filled with sexual temptation.
Regardless of the headlines and stories you read about these and other sexual sins, I encourage Christians everywhere not to engage in gossip or idle conversation about what judgment God should bestow on these sinners, but rather pray for their healing and redirect others to do the same.
After all, we've all done, said and thought things that would hurt others if they appeared on the front page of a national news outlet. I pray my colleagues in the media will understand this as they write their stories and headlines.