My initial reaction, besides horror, to the shooting death of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was to try to hide from the story. I was always a fan of McNair, and will never forget the heartbreak of the Titans’ just-a-yard-short drive against the Rams in the Super Bowl. Like Kirby Puckett, McNair was a guy whose virtues on and around the field of play were such that I’d prefer to remember him only as he was in uniform.
That said, the saga of McNair’s death at the too-young age of 36 is the proverbial train wreck you can’t look away from, and the details are ugly: McNair was involved with a 20-year-old mistress while he was married to his wife of 12 years, with whom he had four children. From what we can tell, his mistress thought he was leaving his wife, and his wife didn’t know about the mistress. McNair’s death has been ruled a homicide, and while the police haven’t wrapped up the investigation, it appears that the mistress shot him and turned the gun – which she had purchased days earlier – on herself. The motive for the killing is likewise murky, but the obvious likely explanation is that McNair’s deceptions in one sense or another caught up to him.
The McNair story brought me back yet again to the downfall of Mark Sanford and a basic point that the cultural Left, with its pervasive hold on our culture, has fundamentally wrong.
You will recall that the main criticism of guys like Sanford from the left is that they are “moralizers” – i.e., speak out on behalf of traditional sexual mores and ‘family values,’ such as not shacking up with a woman not your wife, especially if you are already married. The argument, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, is that the real sin of political and cultural leaders is not cheating on their own wives but telling other people that cheating on your wife is a bad thing.
Now, of course any system of moral values, and any discussion of right and wrong in government policy, inherently involves religion, as the foundation of pretty much everyone’s moral thinking is their religion or irreligion. That being said, it can’t be stressed often enough that when our leaders speak out against things like marital infidelity, what they are doing is not just abstract moral philosophy but rather bringing to bear the prudence and wisdom of human experience. Which is where McNair comes into the picture. We know, from many thousands of years of human experience, that cheating on your wife opens up a whole world of hazards and complications and deceptions, and that many bad consequences flow to everyone involved that could otherwise have been avoided. If Mark Sanford hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be a presidential candidate. If Steve McNair hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be alive. If Eliot Spitzer hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be Governor of New York. And on and on and on throughout the ages. The story is all the sadder when men like Sanford and McNair, who had been models of integrity and professionalism in their professional lives, throw it all away over such foolishness. Promiscuous sex, sex among teenagers, prostitution, divorce…we know, and we see, the costs of these things played out again and again and again, and the job of adults, wise in the world by virtue of experience, is to impart to others those lessons, to impart knowledge that comes from human experience and acts as a restraint on the most common of impulses. When the leaders of our society, government and culture speak out on these issues, they are performing that valuable service. Would that someone had gotten that message through at some point to Steve McNair; would that Mark Sanford had listened to his own advice. And shame on anyone who wants to drive the wisdom of experience out of the public square.
The usual rejoinder at this point is to complain that of course it’s all well and good for people to teach morality in the privacy of their own homes, but that people in politics and government have no business getting involved in private matters. As I have noted repeatedly over the years, that’s an easier argument to make when government is small and less intrusive, and laughable coming from people who want to make it larger and more intimately involved in everyday life, but besides that, the very fact that things like adultery are largely beyond the reach of the law is precisely why they remain properly within the reach of the culture, and why it’s a good thing to have prominent people speaking out on such issues.
Maybe McNair, and Sanford, and Spitzer, and so many, many others would never have listened. Human beings are sinful by nature, and desire is strong. But the whole point of civilized society is to make a concerted, collective effort to pass on what we have learned over human history about the restraints we must place upon our instincts if we are to avoid similar tragedies, if we are to act as reasoning moral agents rather than animals driven only by impulse. Being a ‘moralizer’ about those restraints may not be the popular path, but it’s the path of wisdom and maturity. We should be happy for anyone still willing to do that job.