This photo appeared in our Sept 1999 newsletter. Then newly elected Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert studying the Ten Commandments that I asked him to “always obey and to display.”
Revelations and allegations against Washington personalities have lately made for scandalous headlines, as they should. Investigations of a former speaker of the House and former member of Congress should be taken seriously. Still, they are only investigations at this stage. I hope we still hold to a fundamental legal concept in this country that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty.” Simply comparing our history to that of most of the rest of the world should be enough to convince us of the importance of this principle.
Still, we all know, generally where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It certainly won’t be the first time. Scandal is such a standard here in Washington that it became the name of a very popular TV series about, well, Washington scandals. Until recently, you could take a guided “Scandal Tour” of the nation’s capital.
Every time a story breaks like the ones surrounding Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, Rep. Aaron Schock, or, even the former Family Research Council executive Josh Duggar, I don’t think about the salacious appeal of the story, or of the terrible straights those public figures find themselves in—I think about the possible victims. Maybe that’s because I’m married to psychotherapist who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse and other forms of trauma. Make no mistake about it—sexual abuse is a life-long trauma, as is being implicated in any form of criminal activity—for example, the Schock office interns now being hauled in front of a grand jury.
When the subject of scandal is a person in high public office, or engaged in political or social action, or, more immediately relevant to my world, a religious figure—the victims are myriad. The pain and suffering just continues to emanate out from the perpetrator’s immediate circle of casualties to an enormous, almost limitless ring of likely never-to-be-named and even unknown sufferers. For a top elected official, it includes all those that put their trust and, sometimes, their time, energy, and money into a campaign. Those supporters feel they have a friend, an advocate that will help them, not someone that will turn and embarrass them. For donors to organizations that promote public virtue, only to discover gross hypocrisy, it feels like an utter betrayal.
I remember the day, years ago, when I led a delegation to Capitol Hill to present a beautiful plaque of the Ten Commandments to then Speaker Hastert. I knew little about him, except that he was an active layman in his evangelical church back in Aurora, Illinois. (Oddly, in mid-December 1999, I had been in then Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s office in the US Capitol on the day of Hastert’s election. I remember a frantic staffer rushed in to announce, “Denny’s going up to the big chair. It’s Denny. He‘s a good guy.” I didn’t know Rep. Hastert at the time, so it made no impression on me.)
Eight months later, at the conclusion of that ceremony when our group conveyed the tablets to the new Speaker, charging him to “always obey them and to display them,” he said something peculiar. He looked the plaque up and down nervously and said something like, You guys know these aren’t in force anymore. We’re under grace now, not the law.
At that moment, one of our delegates, the inimitable (and late) Reverend Dr. Edwin Elliott of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, said to the Speaker in his witty way with a wry smile, “Has anyone informed Mrs. Hastert of this?” Dr. Elliott used his famous bushy eyebrows to indicate he was alluding to the commandment against adultery. Speaker Hastert did not respond.
What we’re reading and hearing about in the news these days is the reason our ministry continues to distribute plaques of the Ten Commandments to elected and appointed officials, as we did just this past week when we gave them to a new US senator. The timeless Words of Sinai are a reminder to us all that no one is perfect and we all need a higher moral authority than ourselves to hold us in check and accountable. The Commandments are a gift to us from a loving God who saves us from ourselves, and, by doing so, spares others from suffering at our hands. I think of the Commandments as a defense against scandal and victimization.
My team and I are planning more Ten Commandments presentations in the days ahead. Perhaps the more plaques there are on walls in Washington, the less scandals there will be in the headlines, and the fewer victims there will be to suffer that trauma.