Writings by Cole Huffman

Franken, Stein, and Us

“I felt worse than ever. I felt like people whose respect meant a lot to me had begun to feel like I was a terrible person. I thought about Eliot Spitzer again, and about all the people he had let down because he couldn’t stop his own flaws from sabotaging his desire to do good.”

The italicized words are underlined in my copy of Al Franken’s book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. His words. Eliot Spitzer was a prominent New York politician who ruined his career in a sex scandal. Franken invoked him to describe his feelings about when he ran for Senate and jokes he wrote for Saturday Night Live were used against him by political opponents to portray him as degrading to women. As it turns out, the shoe fits.

I underlined Franken’s words months before news broke that the former comic would render himself a former senator, resigning his office due to sexual improprieties. I once heard Steve Brown quip that the world has a way of turning over on those who sat atop it the day before. It surely does.

I didn’t include Franken’s book in my most recent list of annual reads because I didn’t want to deal with blowback from tribal conservatives. I’m trying to remove certain stressors from my life now. But I read widely, and reading Franken was kind of like that place in Exodus where the people of Israel were told to plunder the Egyptians. In his words I heard again a salient warning I cannot heed too often: Don’t be the guy who can’t get out of his own way.

In consideration of sexual misconduct (harassment, assault, improprieties) this is a teachable moment sociologically. Sarah Silverman, a comic in the Franken mode, publically commented after learning about what fellow comic Louis CK subjected women to. She expressed anger over Louis’ wrongs, anger at her own complicit Hollywood culture, but also sadness. The guilty man is her good friend. She asked a pained question: “Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?”

Her question got a lot of press because it articulates a tension most human beings with moral intuition feel. And before any of us move too quickly to resolving the tension, we should consider how teachable the church seems to be at present. Many others are trying to learn something from these events. What are we learning?

Sexual harassment is something women in our own church have experienced, no doubt. Some have experienced sexual assault. Across the country now, women are emboldened to come forward and tell their stories. While media attention focuses on big fish offenders, the smell of the catch is everywhere.

To say we’re all sinners is indelibly true and empirically verifiable. But this is not a time to be heard saying it with anything resembling flippancy. Ben Stein once said everyone is a major league sinner except his wife, and while most guys smile knowingly at that, there are moments when the we’re-all-sinners reflex, while factually true, is emotionally insensitive and circumstantially dismissive.

It can also paper over genuine wrongs with cheap grace. I’ve watched some—by no means all—evangelicals go to defending men in the public eye who have no interest in owning, much less repenting of credible accounts of sexual misconduct toward women. The we’re-all-sinners reflex will compare them to King David. David had a Nathan, however, and his own deep repentance. But men who are perceived to be on “our side” get pardoned quickly in the interests of winning the culture war. That’s not just hyper-partisanship. It’s cheap grace.

The church has things to ponder in this cultural moment. Those who’ve suffered another’s sexual misconduct against them are among us. They hear how we talk about their experiences, like someone saying offhandedly in a Sunday school class: Well, women have been known to lie about these things.

Why would someone say that? Is it because he so badly wants to believe in the white hat? That someone who holds his same values just couldn’t be the creep women say he is? That may be. The presumption of innocence is the first thing tossed out in the court of public opinion, we know. But what troubles me, and many other evangelical leaders, is “the culture” may be awakening to a kind of moral clarity too many quarters of the evangelical church seem dulled to in comparison right now.

It’s been said the church that marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in a generation. Perhaps that’s too dramatic, although my high school daughter has told me, more than once, about the horrendous things some boys say to/about girls at her Christian high school. Some of that is immaturity, boys being boys, yes. But the mindset is evidence of deeper soil erosion from a moral high ground it feels like we’re losing.  

A godly sexual ethic is about more than making no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:13-14). It’s also about how we regard the dignity of people as engendered beings, and whether we sufficiently care for those who’ve had their person violated. The church has always had flaws and leads with grace by conviction and gratitude. But if we’re weighed and found wanting in this arena in this cultural moment, we sabotage our desires to do good by damaging our witness long term.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:01 AM
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