Last week when the DUP’S Iris Robinson retired, I blogged about her battle for the ‘moral soul’ of Northern Ireland. I was as surprised as anyone at the news yesterday evening about her extramarital affair, and her attempt last March to take her own life due to her anguish about what had happened.
It was inevitable (but far too easy) that Mrs Robinson would soon be mocked for not living up to her professed Christian beliefs. This has certainly been a prominent theme in online discussions of the matter. Behind the protection of their computers, some people easily forget that they are discussing real human beings. There is little sympathy for a politician who described homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ in God’s sight.
Back when I was an undergraduate studying political science at Providence College, in a class I was taking we conducted research that demonstrated people were much more likely to show understanding for political candidates who had inappropriate sexual relationships than those who were dishonest financially.
It seemed people were willing to cut politicians some slack in their private sexual lives, as long as they could trust them to handle money honestly. This is probably because when people vote for someone, they expect them to act in the public interest. This requires using other people’s money wisely and not taking more than their fair share from the taxpayers’ coffers. People thought that what goes on in bedrooms between consenting adults isn’t necessarily the voters’ business.
But a central plank of conservative evangelical political thinking is that people of upstanding ‘moral’ character make the best public servants. Adhering to a strict evangelical sexual morality – no sex before marriage, no adultery, no homosexuality – is essential to that Christian character. When conservative evangelicals perceive that a politician lacks this character, they seriously doubt his or her ability to be a good political representative.
In their statements, both Robinsons used the Christian language of repentance and forgiveness. But it is as yet unclear how these events will play with the DUP grassroots, especially the conservative evangelical wing of the party that already feels let down by the Rev Ian Paisley’s compromise with Sinn Fein. Will they be as understanding as those who took part in that research back in Providence?
Questions also have been asked about why this story has only entered the public realm now. There is speculation that there may be more, perhaps politically damaging revelations, to come from the Robinsons.
(Photo from BBC website)