The recent hacking of the Ashley Madison adultery website exposed names and information from its approximately 37 million members—among them, a couple of prominent, family values patriarchs. One critic pounced on that hypocrisy to try to paint traditional Christian marriage itself as sexist and hypocritical.
The most famous name to emerge from the hacking is family values promoter and reality TV star Josh Duggar, fresh off the disturbing revelations of his teenage sexual molestation of his sisters. Duggar released a statement in which he judged himself “the biggest hypocrite ever”:
While espousing faith and family values, I . . . became unfaithful to my wife. I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.
He went on to admit that for years he had been “publicly stating I was fighting against immorality in our country while hiding my own personal failings. . . . I deeply regret all the hurt I have caused so many by being such a bad example. I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
Also exposed in the hacking was one half of the popular Christian husband-and-wife vlogging team, Sam and Nia Rader. Sam had opened an Ashley Madison account in 2013, before the couple’s YouTube fame. They recently released a video in which Sam clears the air about it, claiming that he and his wife had already worked through the issue together and she had forgiven him. Unlike Duggar, Sam Rader attests that he never met anyone through the cheating site or had an affair.
Skeptics might say that both of their statements are insincere and a cynical PR spin, and perhaps they are. The hypocrite “deceives others by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice,” as Christopher O. Tollefsen puts it, so we don’t know if they can be believed. Certainly Duggar’s wife, family, friends, and supporters may find it difficult if not impossible to trust and forgive him his betrayal. “The only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy,” declared essayist William Hazlitt two hundred years ago. “The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
Being Christian doesn’t necessarily make us better than anyone else; it means that we strive to hold ourselves accountable to our values. Sometimes we fall short—perhaps even more often than not. That doesn’t invalidate the values themselves; nor does it mean that all who fall short are hypocrites. But preaching a code of behavior that we sometimes don’t live up to makes us targets for scorn. Had Charlie Sheen’s name popped up among the Ashley Madison accounts, no one would have leapt to condemn him because Sheen has no standards in this regard to fall short of. But let someone with religious standards do so, and some critics are quick to pounce.
Enter Slate’s Amanda Marcotte. She took the hacking as an opportunity to claim that the Ashley Madison episode provides a “peephole into ‘traditional’ Christian marriage,” which emphasizes the wife’s submission to the husband’s moral leadership. Marcotte claims that the scandal reveals what “this call to male responsibility and protection can look like in practice.” As examples, she zeroed in on Duggar’s and Rader’s moral failure.
Here’s why Marcotte is wrong to single them out and use them to smear Christian marriage:
First, the 37 million Ashley Madison accounts range across 53 countries and everywhere across America, with the exception of only three sparsely populated zip codes. Surely among that legion of cheaters there were husbands of all faiths and political stripes. But Marcotte focused on two notable Christian-right figures, because they are easy, politically correct targets in our culture, because they espouse a moral code she doesn’t ascribe to, and because she has contempt for their belief in the complementary roles of husband and wife.
Second, Duggar and Rader are not examples of what that relationship looks like “in practice”—they are examples of the failure of it. They are not representative of faithful Christian husbands—they are representative of those who succumbed to temptation.
Third, I don’t know what is in Sam Rader’s heart or what transpired between him and his wife when he confessed his transgression—and neither does Marcotte, who seems to assume, a là Hazlitt, that his repentance is fake. Regardless, Rader was correct when said in his video message that we are all broken, even Christians. All of us are fallen, all of us are weak, and all of us are hypocritical sometime about something. All of us need forgiveness.
And unlike what many people, including Marcotte, seem to think, Christians do not consider forgiveness a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card. “It’s so easy!” Marcotte sneered about Rader’s announcement that “I have sought forgiveness from God, and he has forgiven me, so I have been completely cleansed of this sin.” Again, I cannot speak for his sincerity, but true contrition is not an easy, rubber-stamped absolution. It is a humbling and sometimes painful process of acknowledging guilt to oneself, to the ones we have wronged, and to God. It means empathizing with the pain we have caused others, sincerely asking their forgiveness, and then earning that forgiveness and their trust all over again through a conscious commitment.
To err is human, as Alexander Pope famously wrote, to forgive divine. Josh Duggar and Sam Rader may be hypocrites, but that is a human failing, not only a Christian one.