The lessons of Mark Souder

THE LESSONS OF MARK SOUDER…. It was bad enough when we learned that Mark Souder, the conservative Republican House member from Louisiana Indiana, resigned in disgrace last week because of a sex scandal. Souder was one of Congress’ most pious moralists and a close ally of the religious right, making the revelations more potent.

But the story got just a little worse when we learned that Souder had an affair with a part-time aide, with whom he’d recorded a video just six months ago — all about his tireless work in support of abstinence programs.

Souder, who officially gave up his office on Friday, talked to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, his hometown paper, over the weekend. Reflecting on the video, the Republican didn’t sound especially embarrassed. “If some people see this abstinence video, I’m living proof of what we’re saying in it,” Souder said. “If they actually listen to the words, maybe it’s worth it.”

Souder may not fully appreciate this, but the abstinence video is now a punch-line, not a serious reflection on the issue. When the two people in the clip engaged in an extra-marital affair after preaching about abstinence, no one’s going to take it seriously, nor should they.

E.J. Dionne Jr., meanwhile, notes in his column today that he “took no pleasure in Souder’s resignation,” having worked with the conservative lawmaker in the past. Despite the columnist disagreeing with Souder on many issues, Dionne said he found him to be “both serious and thoughtful in his approach to religious and political questions.”

But Souder’s fall from grace, Dionne added, can also serve as a teaching moment to the Christian right.

Enough with dividing the world between moral, family-loving Christians and supposedly permissive, corrupt, family-destroying secularists.

Enough with pretending that personal virtue is connected with political creeds. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, and then insisting upon understanding after the failures of someone on your own side become known to the world. And enough with claiming that support for gay rights and gay marriage is synonymous with opposition to family values and sexual responsibility.

It’s not the self-righteousness of religious conservatives that bothers me most. We liberals can be pretty self-righteous, too. It’s the refusal to acknowledge that the pressures endangering the family do not come from some dark secular leftist conspiracy but from cultural and economic forces that affect us all.

That’s valuable guidance, which the religious right and its allies will no doubt ignore. If they didn’t have self-righteous, oblivious moralizing, what would this crowd have left?