Unwanted, and inappropriate sexual advances have been criminalized, particularly if they involve an abuse of power in the workplace. Wherever it happens, sexual abuse may be traumatic enough to evoke post-traumatic stress, a seriously disabling condition that also affects war veterans. Of course, sexual abuse of children is an even graver issue.
One might imagine that conservative politicians would take these issues to heart, particularly because (a) they like to express themselves on the importance of “family values”, and (b) they risk political ruin once the mismatch between their opinions and behavior is revealed. (Of course, liberals may also stumble and fall in just the same ways but their smaller focus on sexual repression could make them less vulnerable).
Yet, almost as though they were characters in a ribald farce, conservative politicians seem compelled by a malicious playwright to behave in ways that expose their rabid hypocrisies in public.
Why Religious Conservatives Devolve into Sex Maniacs
There is something Dickensian about the psyche of religious conservatives. They present themselves as an example to the public about how to behave and pontificate about the moral decline of modern life. In private life, many are the opposite. They act out the evil that they project onto others. This phenomenon has generated a great deal of scandal in political life.
Why are religious restrictions on sexual life so ineffective? One problem relates to the basic functioning of the human brain. If a devout person wants to eliminate all sexual thoughts, as potentially sinful, this is a great deal easier said than done.
Research psychologists subjected this phenomenon to experimental scrutiny. Tell someone not to think about a white bear and they cannot do it (1). The white bear effect: the image of a white bear haunts their consciousness.
Really cracking down on sexual thoughts is remarkably tough and can have the opposite effect of feeding sexual obsessions. Constantly on their guard against the perceived danger of sexual thoughts, early Christian monks believed that they were possessed by evil spirits, their own variant of the white bear effect.
This ancient limitation on thought control by individuals generates all kinds of surprising consequences for sexual behavior. Religious conservatives spend more on pornography, are more likely to have unwanted teen pregnancies, and engage in unusual behavior such as casual sex in public restrooms (2).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that religious and political leaders who emphasize family values in their public pronouncements may behave very differently in private. Examples of prominent conservative politicians and public figures whose lofty statement of values in sexual matters was cruelly undercut by their own behavior include: Larry Craig, Newt Gingrich, Mark Foley, Jimmy Swaggart, Bob Livingstone, Henry Hyde, and Bob Packwood, in addition to Roy Moore and many others.
A darker side of such hypocrisy is represented by the activities of serial child rapists amongst the clergy. Some prominent conservative political went down the same path. Amongst the most notorious are conservative Islamic extremists in the Middle East who criminalize normal sexuality and groom boy dancers as prostitutes. Religious extremism has common features whether it is found in Afghanistan, or Alabama.
That raises the question of why a politician like Roy Moore who wishes to enforce conformity to his own narrow religious views on the public—in defiance of the US Constitution—would flourish in Alabama. The key variable is that this is an extremely religious state, second only to Mississippi.
Such deeply religious states are characterized by widespread poverty, cross-generational inequality, severe health problems, large areas of economic blight, and a general lack of hope for the future (3).
In other words, they suffer from many of the indexes of economic under development. Alabama is the second worst state on many of these measures, inspiring the humorous expression, “Thank God for Mississippi.” (Ironically, it is a wonderful place to live for those who are well off).
Understanding the wretchedness of life for poor Alabamians, one begins to understand why residents might seek an escape in God and football, and why politicians like Roy Moore can prosper. These certainly do very little to improve the quality of life of most poor residents and appeal instead to religious pie in the sky with the fervor of skilled con men (and con women).
This talent for painting illusion as reality is, of course, a key quality of the religious conservative. When Roy Moore allegedly fell short of his own medieval prescriptions for sexual morality, the real evil was ascribed to his political enemies.
Outside of Alabama, few people have any doubt about where the blame rests.
1 Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.
2 Barber, N. (2012, June 9). The sexual obsession. Blog post: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201206/the-sexual-obsession
3 Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/