Jason Byassee: Vows and the certainty of Time

In marriage, Baptism, or leadership, what could be more important than joyful loyalty?

“Here, read this,” my wife said, thrusting the latest Time magazine at me. “Why can’t the church tell it like it is, when a secular magazine can?”

“It” was an essay reflecting on the recent string of celebrity marriages that have ended in infidelity. The essayist, Caitlin Flanagan, has little sympathy for the alpha males involved: Governor Sanford, former Senator Edwards, former Governor Spitzer, heck even Jon Gosselin of (the former) “Jon & Kate Plus 8” gets roughed up a bit. The most empathetic statement the author can muster is about her own father, when asked how he managed not to cheat on his wife of 50 years: “He replied simply, ‘I can’t drive’.”

Those with access, do. We can’t help it. We’re men. Blame the God who made us this way.

Or maybe it’s more complicated. Flanagan diagnoses a key point of weakness in a powerful leader that causes this sort of downfall. Speaking of Sanford’s affair in particular, she says, “When a married man begins a secret, solicitous correspondence with a beautiful and emotionally needy single woman, he has already begun to cheat on his wife.” Flanagan may as well have cited Scripture. Jesus put it this way: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman (notice the gender of the assumed perpetrator again) with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).

I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that public officials spend so much of their time at official functions. At these places we dress up, behave our best, mug for the cameras and never, ever show our less presentable selves. Everyone is well-dressed, everyone is attentive to everyone else, we all laugh at each other’s jokes. It’s a fantasy world, one rightly entered on occasion for limited goals (academic exchange and fundraising are two that come to mind). But no one should live there permanently.

Institutional leaders can’t avoid going there from time to time. And when we do we could use the church’s help to be faithful to our vows, not only of marriage, but of baptism when we promise lives of holiness. Since the early 20th century the Gideons have recognized that business people away from home felt lonely, unappreciated, rootless and anonymous -- a perfect cocktail for marital infidelity. Their recipe -- a Bible in every hotel room -- may not be protection enough and risks seeming precious rather than powerful. But it suggests that at least in one case, someone in the church thought creatively about how to name a problem and help solve it.

What else might work? One way would be to bring our kids with us to such functions (I’ve noticed female professionals seem more likely to do this than male ones). As every married couple knows, nothing kills the mood like a four-year-old who won’t eat his green beans or stop hitting his brother. When I suggested this fix to one female colleague she thought back to the night before, when her two-year old threw arugula across the room and sobbed when different foods touched each other on his plate. Cute, to be sure. But hardly sexy.

Another would be to preach with as much moral certainty as this magazine, at least once in a while. It’s humbling that Time denounces these men’s behavior far more loudly than I’ve heard any church leader do (including our habitual moral fulminators in the public eye). Once, my wife preached a straight-forward sermon against adultery, proclaiming that Christians should be people who keep their vows, especially their marriage vows. More than one listener thanked her profusely. It might not have mattered if their first husbands had heard such a message -- but then again, maybe it would have?

Of course it’s more important to name what we’re for than what we’re against. We’re for marriage. It’s beautiful, a treasure, and even sexy. No wonder it’s the Bible’s favorite metaphor for God’s relationship to humanity. As for leaders, the more examples of genuine fulfilling love we can hold up in storytelling, the better. For what message could be more important to institutional health than that of joyful loyalty?

Perhaps the real question is this: How do we turn “business” travel into pilgrimage -- in which we go looking not just to meet ours or our institution’s needs, but to meet Jesus?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.