When Private is Public

Gresham's Law

There are some lines of Alexander Pope that bear repeating:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

We are now "embracing" vice - sexual vice - at such a speed and with too little opposition. Our public culture is becoming a veritable sink. In January 1999 the adulteries of Labour MPs and Prince Charles, the gay sex and drugs of a Tory MEP, the age of consent, and pornography on Channel 5 have all been issues.

What should alarm everyone (not only Christians) is the evidence that a sexual free-for-all erodes the public good and destroys social cohesion. Since the 1960's there has been what Irving Kristol calls a cultural "Gresham's Law".

Gresham's Law can work for books or theatre as efficiently as it does for coinage - driving out the good, establishing the debased. The cultural market in the U.S. today is being preempted by dirty books, dirty movies, dirty theatre. A pornographic novel has a far better chance of being published today than a non-pornographic one, and quite a few pretty good novels are not being published at all simply because they are not pornographic, and are therefore less likely to sell. Our cultural condition has not improved as the result of the new freedom.

But this debasing of the culture goes with deeper social consequences. A society without sexual restraint soon sees the disintegration of marriage and the married-family. And that has happened. In the UK we are now the divorce capital of Europe and we have the worst teenage pregnancy rate in the Western World. And there are, of course, sad results for children. On average children do better in terms of life-chances, education, health and employment with two parents of the opposite sex committed together for life than others do in alternative family arrangements. That is admitted by the majority of serious social scientists and analysts.

Sex and Culture

However, there are wider cultural and societal effects. J.D.Unwin's researches published as long ago as 1934 by the Oxford University Press under the title Sex and Culture still need to be heeded. Professor V.A.Demant's summarizes the arguments:

His [Unwin's] conclusion, reached after a review of many societies and civilizations, is that when social regulations forbid indiscriminate satisfaction of the sexual impulses, the emotional conflict is expressed in another way; and that what we call civilization has been built up by sacrifices in the gratification of innate desires. "A greater or lesser mental development has accompanied a limitation or extension of sexual opportunity." Unwin correlates three types of religion with three kinds of society described by their sexual regulations. "Societies that permitted pre-nuptial freedom were in the zoistic condition and produced little culture beyond tribal survival. Societies that imposed an irregular or occasional continence were in the manistic condition: these have a more elaborate social system. Societies that enforced complete pre-nuptial continence were in the deistic condition, and these have the maximum of intellectual and creative energy. He deduces that the greatest social energy and impulse for civilisation-building is a correlate of the strictest of sexual patterns, namely that of absolute monogamy and extra-marital continence (V.A.Demant, An Exposition of Christian Sex Ethics p100 ff).

Whether that is the best or only way of categorizing societies and religions can be debated. But the basic claim that sexual restraint is correlated with cultural health stands, and would seem to be self-evidently true. A society where marriage norms have been destroyed and where pure sexual gratification is a primary value is not a society that can motivate communal effort. Nor will many of its members want to make sacrifices for such a society.

E.J.Mishan once wrote:

Can anyone care very much what happens to a society whose members are continually and visibly obsessed with sexual carousal - to a society where, in effect, the human animal has been reduced to a life-style that consists in the main activity of alternatively inflaming itself and relieving itself?

But that life-style is now endorsed by some in the media, education and politics.

Tony Blair and Robin Cook

On January 10 Tony Blair told BBC One's Breakfast with Frost that he gave his full backing to Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, whose ex-wife had made allegations about his sexual [mis-]behaviour from her personal experience. He described Robin Cook as "the most respected foreign minister in the rest of Europe that we've had for years and years and years". The Prime Minister also said that "if you go through any big corporation employees had problems in their private lives that did not affect the way they carried out their jobs." He asked to be judged not on "scandal, gossip and trivia" but "judge us on the things that really matter."

That was more than I could cope with. Whatever the truth about his former marriage, Robin Cook, on his own admission, while still married to his ex-wife considered appointing Gaynor Regan, his new wife, as diary secretary, at a time when the world did not know she was his mistress. Eventually, of course, he divorced his wife, apparently under pressure from Labour spin-doctors. Undoubtedly his former wife gives only one side to the story; nor is it edifying to trawl through sordid private misfortunes and sins, certainly not at second hand. But some comment had to be made. So I wrote the following letter to The Times. It was published on January 13:

In supporting Robin Cook (report, January 11), Tony Blair seemed to dismiss the issues relating to the private life of his Foreign Secretary as "scandal, gossip and trivia". The Prime Minister wanted to get back to "the things that really matter."

But the break-up of marriage and the marriage-based family does "really matter". Even if you ignore the private human damage, there are public exchequer costs. According to Government estimates the annual "costs to the public purse of marital breakdown" are a staggering £5 billion (Research Paper 96/42 p74), and that excludes all hidden costs. Surely it does "really matter" that £5 billion is not potentially available for the current National Health Service crisis, or for education.

The sexual immoralities and marriage failures of public figures who should set public standards are a proper public concern. They cannot be dismissed as "trivia". They call for repentance. Lord Nolan, the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, when interviewed soon after Tony Blair took office, said:

"Of all the behaviour which in my personal experience has caused the greatest misery to other human beings, I would put adultery pretty high on the list. I don't actually think you can expect a man with the strains of public life to perform adequately unless he has got a good home life to go back to."

Enough is enough

As Christians what should we do? Of course, we must tell people publicly and privately about forgiveness. We must explain that Jesus Christ died for all sins, sexual sins included. King David in the Old Testament was a classic case of a sexual sinner (and a murderer) who repented, was forgiven, but, of course, he still had to face the practical consequences of his folly. Nor can any be "holier than thou". All of us must say, "there but for the grace of God go I".

Nevertheless, in our public culture today, surely Christians have to insist on a return to public standards on the part of those in public positions. When a head teacher has an adulterous affair with a staff member, breaks up their marriage and all the school knows, should not he, or she, resign? What an example to the children! When MPs or MEPs behave like some have been doing here in the North East recently - homosexually and heterosexually - should they too not resign? Can you trust someone in public who you cannot trust in private? John Profumo, the Tory MP had an affair with the prostitute Christine Keeler and brought down the Macmillan government in the 1960's. He did the honest thing. He resigned, repented and then led a life of great usefulness in charitable work. Nor should we be impressed by the argument that a moral test would mean few would pass it. This century politics have become so sleazy that good men and women undoubtedly have been, and are being, deterred from entering political life. It is again a case of Gresham's Law.

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