Fall From Grace: What The Religious Right Should Learn From The McDonnell Scandal

Travel back with me to 2009: Robert McDonnell was campaigning for Virginia governor, and TV preacher Pat Robertson was ecstatic.

Leaders of Religious Right groups are fond of telling us that if we elect more fundamentalist Christians to office, we’ll have less corruption. Biblical literalists must be more ethical, right?

That claim is looking a little thin in light of recent events in Virginia. Yesterday, Robert F. McDonnell, the state’s former governor, was found guilty on 11 counts related to public corruption, conspiracy and bribery. His wife, Maureen, whom this "family values" politican tried willingly to throw under the bus, was found guilty on nine charges.

The McDonnells were accused of essentially selling influence in exchange for gifts, lavish vacations and sweetheart loans of $120,000 from a wealthy businessman named Jonnie R. Williams Sr. McDonnell is the first Virginia governor to be charged with a crime and the first convicted of one.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Travel back with me to 2009. McDonnell was campaigning for the governor’s mansion, and TV preacher Pat Robertson was ecstatic.

You see, McDonnell had attended Robertson’s Regent University. In fact, a master’s thesis he wrote while there briefly became a campaign issue. Robertson was excited to think that one of his own would soon lead the Old Dominion.

McDonnell won the race easily and soon set out to establish godly rule in Virginia. Speaking at Regent, he vowed to bring “servant leadership” to the state.

“It reflects those words of Jesus, who said that the greatest among you is the servant of all, and the fact that he came not to be served, but to serve,” McDonnell said. “I think that is the model for servant leadership.”

In reality, this “servant leadership” tended to look like the same old Religious Right agenda. When state officials decided that police chaplains should use non-sectarian prayers at public events, McDonnell rescinded the order. McDonnell’s obsession with blocking access to legal abortion earned him the nickname “Gov. Ultrasound.”  He drew up new rules allowing tax-funded “faith-based” adoption agencies to deny services to anyone who failed to meet a strict theological litmus test. He signed a law mandating that public colleges in Virginia give funding to student groups even if they discriminate on religious grounds. McDonnell appointed a private school voucher advocate as education secretary and shifted funding for sex education from comprehensive programs to “abstinence-only” approaches that critics say are often anchored in religion.

McDonnell also pushed for a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage (which was later approved by the voters) and even appeared on Robertson’s “700 Club” to lobby for it. McDonnell told a beaming Robertson, “From the Garden of Eden to 2006, we’ve believed that marriage is between a man and a woman. But because of some social trends out there and some court decisions, Pat, as you know, marriage is under attack.”

(Robertson, of course, is sticking by McDonnell and, as he is wont to do, has fashioned a conspiracy theory to explain it all: You see, President Barack Obama is to blame!)

McDonnell spoke at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in 2010 and 2012. Telegenic and polished, he was seen as a Religious Right rising star. There was talk about putting him on a future Republican ticket as vice president.

All of that came crashing down when McDonnell was indicted in January.

Look, politicians and public figures can let their supporters down. It happens. But it seems to happen to the Religious Right pretty often. And usually, despite their high-handed moralizing, they don’t seem to care.

Recall how they rallied behind serial adulterer Newt Gingrich. Consider how they never said a peep when U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) admitted to consorting with prostitutes. Watch them prop up Dinesh D'Souza as he begs a federal court not to send him to prison for violating campaign-finance laws.

See them throw money at an obvious political hack like Ralph Reed whose main philosophy seems to be “the ends justify the means.” Watch them support right-wing organizations that advocate openly violating federal law to get their people elected to office.

Listen to their leaders denounce LGBT Americans in vile language. Observe as they swoon over divisive extremists like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bryan Fischer, Tony Perkins, Ben Carson, Sean Hannity, ad nauseam whose primary goal is to line their pockets by setting one group of Americans against another. Go to one of their meetings and be appalled as they feed on a steady diet of hate, fear and rage.

And remember, these are the people who feel ordained by God to judge the rest of us.

Based on the politicians and leaders they’ve been backing lately, I’d say it’s time for them to take a break and do some soul searching.

I’d recommend they start by consulting their own holy book – you know, the one they’re always happy to bash us with. Specifically, they should examine the 7th chapter of the Book of Matthew and the words of Jesus: “Why do you look at the speck of dust that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?...You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”