According to the new calculations of the Religious Right, a politician was a good guy if he voted the right way, even if privately he was morally bankrupt.

21 Dec

Former congressman Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) pleaded not guilty in federal court to corruption charges on Monday, Dec. 12. Schock faces a 24-count indictment that says he allegedly misused public funds and campaign money and lied about it. (AP)

This piece is by Daniel Silliman, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the history department at the University of Notre Dame.

Did evangelicals fail Aaron Schock, the former congressman who decorated his office to evoke “Downton Abbey”?

Before Schock ran for Congress, he turned to Jesus. He found a conservative Baptist church in Peoria, Ill., in 2007. He committed his life to God. He told the pastor that as a state representative, he had seen how politics can corrupt your soul. He had seen the corrosive power of money and pride. He needed God and a good church to help him resist the temptations of a life in politics.

His newfound faith was reported in the conservative evangelical magazine World, when the then-27-year-old Schock was sworn into Congress in 2009. The magazine described Schock as one of its own, a “young gun,” fighting the good fight. Reporter Emily Belz wrote, “Schock knew he needed someone higher than himself to trust, he said, needed God’s protection against his own foibles.”

Today, back in Illinois, Schock is facing federal charges of corruption. According to the 24-count indictment, Schock used his position of power for personal profit. He allegedly misused public funds and campaign money and lied about it.

The government still has to prove this was intentional to convict Schock of federal crimes. On Monday, Schock entered a plea of not guilty. In public statements, he has said that any misspent money was an honest mistake, entirely unintentional.

Regardless of legal wrongdoing, though, it’s hard to look at the evidence against Schock and not think he gave into his own foibles.

There’s evidence he spent $40,000 of government and campaign money to redecorate his office in the Rayburn Building — paying for a chandelier, gilded mirrors and deep red walls that evoked the drawing room from the British drama “Downton Abbey.” There’s evidence he misused money for private jets, concerts, sporting events and hotel visits costing thousands.

Are you a member of Congress? Don’t do these things.

Play Video0:59
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) resigned from Congress amid allegations he misused funds. The Washington Post’s Ben Terris explains a few things lawmakers might want to avoid if they want to keep their seats. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The indictment says he once used government money to fly to Florida to use a gym and once to fly to Maryland to get a haircut.

He reportedly bought Super Bowl and World Series tickets, claiming the cost as a campaign expense, but then turned around and sold them for a profit, which he pocketed. Allegedly, Schock had his staff falsify mileage reports, claiming government reimbursements for 150,000 miles his car didn’t drive.

In retrospect, it seems like maybe Schock was right to worry about his weakness in the face of temptation. It seems he was susceptible to corruption. When he turned to the church with a cry for help, he probably really needed help.

Schock’s commitment to trust Jesus in 2007 is reminiscent of the conversion of one of the historic leaders of the religious right: the late Charles W. Colson. Colson was also fleeing political corruption when he found evangelicalism.

Colson served as an aide to President Richard Nixon. He was the political strategist who helped Nixon appeal to blue-collar voters and win by a landslide in 1972. Colson was also a dirty tricks artist, a “hatchet man,” with a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. He compiled Nixon’s notorious enemies list and helped plan ways to disgrace those political opponents. Not all of those plans were legal.

“I was willing,” Colson confessed in “Born Again”, his best-selling memoir, “to blink at certain ethical standards.”

When the Nixon White House was overtaken by scandal and Colson was himself publicly disgraced by his connection to the Watergate burglary, he felt forced to reevaluate his morals. He came to see that he had been corrupted by politics and pride.

He felt convicted while reading C.S. Lewis’s spiritual classic “Mere Christianity.” “Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense,” he wrote.

Colson said “spiritual cancer” described his time in politics. He was compelled to turn to Jesus.

“All men have the capacity or both good and evil, and the darker side of man’s nature can always prevail in any human being,” Colson wrote. “Having seen through Watergate how vulnerable man can be, I no longer believe I am master of my destiny. I need God.”

After his conversion, Colson was ushered into a world of Bible studies and prayer groups. Evangelicals throughout Washington took Colson in, by his account. They prayed with him. They helped him read the Bible. They counseled him. They helped him humble himself, and figure out how to do the right thing as the administration he’d served was undone by the hubris he had championed. They supported him when he plead guilty to devising a scheme to obtain derogatory information to defame one of Nixon’s enemies.

It is unclear whether Schock received similar prayer and discipleship from evangelicals in Washington. Shortly after he got to Congress, Schock told World magazine he didn’t really have time to read the Bible as much anymore. He told the Huffington Post he did have a lot of people flattering him.

“When you’re a politician someone always wants something from you,” Schock said, “so they’re constantly telling you how smart or great you are, and that can warp people!”

There is some data suggesting that white evangelicals don’t care as much about corruption in political leadership as they used to. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in October reported that white evangelicals have dramatically revised their opinions about politicians’ personal morality, in recent years.

In 2011, 70 percent said they cared about public figures’ personal morality. Personal ethical behavior was connected, they believed, to faithfully fulfilling the duties of public office. In 2016, only 28 percent of evangelicals still thought this, while the majority of them told pollsters that public figures’ personal morality didn’t really matter.

A number of religious right leaders have publicly voiced this revised view in supporting Donald Trump for president. The prime example may be James Dobson, the Religious Right leader who hotly opposed Bill Clinton throughout the 1990s. Clinton’s marital infidelity disqualified him from running the country, Dobson said.

“Character DOES matter,” Dobson argued in 1998. “You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to to lead a nation and the world.”

In 2016, Dobson said a politician doesn’t need to be a theologian, and evangelicals shouldn’t worry so much about a candidate’s morality. Trump’s commitment to appoint conservative, pro-life judges to the Supreme Court was more important than his long record of personal dishonesty — in business, in charity and in marriage, Dobson said.

Dobson, of course, was only one of a half dozen religious right leaders who made this argument, or an argument like it. According to the new calculations of the Religious Right, a politician was a good guy if he voted the right way, even if privately he was morally bankrupt.

Schock, on the other hand, appeared concerned early on in his career that politics can corrupt your soul.

Schock appears to have spent his whole life as a hustler, looking for every angle to make a quick profit. Peoria newspaper columnist Terry Bibo writes that Schock started trading on the stock market when he was in middle school. At a teen, he scalped tickets, a venture he allegedly continued inappropriately while in office. He got into real estate before he was 20. His first deal, he made more than $100,000 profit. His second deal, he made more than $120,000. He was always looking for the next deal.

When he first appeared on the national stage in 2008, Schock held a joint fundraiser with former President George W. Bush. According to the Peoria Star Journal, Schock’s campaign took in $700,000 from the fundraiser, and then tried to pass off the costs of the private fundraiser to the city. The city balked at the $38,000 price tag. Peoria demanded the Schock campaign pay.

“In the end,” Bibo writes, “he did the right thing, but it wasn’t his first instinct.”

In 2007, Schock went to church and put his trust in Jesus. But after that, it would seem, he went back to looking for angles and indulged his personal foibles.

Turning to evangelicalism worked for Nixon’s hatchet man. But it doesn’t seem to have helped Aaron Schock.

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