America needs to stop and take a deep, cleansing breath. As we sift through allegations and denials of sexual misconduct by public figures, let’s think about how a just, gracious society should really deal with them. We’ll find that we have a lot of room for improvement.
In the age of smartphones, social media and 24/7 news, a single allegation is sufficient to transform an accused male from upstanding family man to “alleged perpetrator” in an instant. Perhaps this is unavoidable in the digital age, but it heightens the need for us to be cautious and deliberative in our response. Instead, depending upon our pre-existing opinion of the accused, we tend either to assume the allegations are malicious and false, or to jump on them as proof that he is the devil incarnate.
This propensity to rush to one side or the other reflects a tragic inclination to believe something not because it is true, but because it fits with a particular worldview or ideological bent. Do we believe in gender equality? Then we had better flock to the side of the female accuser at once. Are we convinced that the left is on a witch hunt? Then we rush to defend the accused before we have even heard all the facts.
Some people believe that men, as a class, have long subjugated and oppressed women. But this conviction does not justify a presumption that a particular man accused of sexual misconduct is, in fact, guilty of it. To the contrary, such a presumption flies in the face of some of the most basic components of justice, including the presumption one is innocent until proven guilty and the refusal to impute guilt to an individual based solely upon his race, religion or gender.
On the other hand, however much we admire a person and trust his commitment to the pursuit of morality, we are fooling ourselves if we think he is beyond past, present, or future moral failings.
When an accusation of criminal misconduct is made and denied, we have an obligation to both parties to seek truth and justice. Whether we like it or not, this requires us to consider the behavior of the accuser as well as the accused, applying standards that are fair to both sides. It is unjust to assess culpability solely on the basis of the woman’s subjective feelings, or what she reports those feelings to have been years after the incident. We should look not only to whether the man’s advances were “unwanted,” but also to whether the woman made that known to him at the time.
When the accused public figure is in line for a public appointment, if he confesses to the alleged misconduct – or if we find the allegations to be credible after a fair investigation – we must then decide whether they disqualify him from the position in question. We should be particularly careful about this, lest we set a standard for public officials that proves impossible for anyone but a successful liar to meet.
If we determine that the accused has lied about his behavior, then that in itself weighs heavily in favor of disqualification. But barring dishonesty, do we really want to disqualify anyone who was ever a bully, ever disobeyed parents, ever shoplifted, ever got drunk, ever expressed an extreme view on a sensitive topic?
For me, incidents of immoral behavior or poor judgment in a person’s past aren’t enough to disqualify him or her from public service, or even from being worthy of role-model status. I know that there isn’t a person alive who has a perfectly clean, pure moral record. I also know that people can and do grow and change.
So while immoral behavior is not “OK” and should not be glossed over or ignored when it occurs, neither should it be, in most cases, an absolute, eternal bar to public service. To insist otherwise is to steer us toward delusion and hypocrisy, and to ultimately disqualify every honest leader from service.
Instead of looking for moral perfection, we should look for honest, humble leaders who can acknowledge their flaws and failures while demonstrating an upward moral trajectory. For me, claims of moral purity since birth trigger suspicion and distrust. But a frank acknowledgment of imperfection, a willingness to confess and repent, and a demonstration of moral growth and maturity just might be the marks of a leader I can trust and respect.