Christian Right leaders who applauded Louisiana Republican David Vitter’s election to the United States Senate as a major win for family values are standing by their man caught in a sex scandal that threatens his political future.
Last week Vitter, 46, confessed to a “serious sin” after his phone number appeared on a list of calls made several years ago from Washington to an escort service being prosecuted as a prostitution ring.
Vitter is a Roman Catholic, but he has powerful friends in the evangelical right. Baptist Press featured him among “stalwart pro-life and pro-family advocates” in a story about how “faith and morality played major roles” in the 2004 general election.
At least one religious group, Christian Conservatives for Reform, called for Vitter’s resignation, but most of his friends in high places in the Christian Right haven’t commented. One exception is Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a former colleague who served alongside Vitter in the Louisiana Legislature.
In a July 11 blog, Perkins said he found Vitter’s admission “very disturbing.”
“I cannot defend David’s behavior,” Perkins said. “Adultery is a serious matter that affects not only the individuals involved but families and the well being of the entire community.”
Having said that, Perkins went on to add: “The American people have shown themselves to be very forgiving toward a public official who admits their failures and takes redemptive steps. And despite what some have said since he released his statement, so does God. Proverbs 24:16 reads ‘For a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again, but the wicked shall fall by calamity.’ I hope to see David back on his feet again.”
Later, after Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt claimed credit for outing Vitter and a famous New Orleans madam told media Vitter was on her client list as well, Perkins went on the offensive.
“Homosexual newspapers, pornographer Larry Flynt and others who despise pro-family values are using Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s admission that he hired an escort service and committed a ‘serious sin’ as an opportunity to say that those who advocate for traditional moral values are hypocrites,” Perkins said. “Their statements leave me to conclude that the immoral behavior itself would be OK with them had the individual involved not taken a stand against immorality. Their hope, of course, is that Senator Vitter will be shamed into never picking up the pro-family banner again.”
Perkins said he could not and would not defend Vitter’s behavior. “I will, however, say that it is refreshing to see someone actually take responsibility for their ‘sin,’ a word we don’t hear used anymore in this city,” Perkins said.
Perkins said Vitter, who isn’t up for re-election until 2010, will have to “regain the trust” of Louisiana voters. “Part of regaining that trust will be maintaining his personal integrity and continuing to provide leadership on family and social issues even though the adversaries of the family will seize every opportunity to criticism him.”
Flynt, who earlier this year ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post offering $1 million to anyone supplying credible information about sexual infidelities of politicians in Congress who espouse family values, said Vitter went public only after Flynt’s staff called Vitter’s office to tell him they knew his telephone number appeared on a list from alleged D.C. Madam Deborah Jean Palfrey’s escort service.
Tuesday on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Flynt said more names were forthcoming. The ad initially provided about 300 leads, he said, since narrowed down to about 30 “solid” allegations. Flynt said the final decision would be whether to “let it drip, drip, drip or we want to go with it everything at once.”
Flynt told King people would be shocked by the next revelation. “I was shocked, especially at one senator,” he said.
In 1988 Flynt won a Supreme Court case against Jerry Falwell, who sued Hustler Magazine and Flynt for libel, invasion of privacy and emotional distress over a parody ad mentioning Falwell that played on a sexual double entendre.
Asked if what bothered him the most about Vitter was hypocrisy–people who speak out on morality and then act immorally, Flynt told King, “It’s the biggest threat to democracy.”
Vitter’s Senate biography says he has received “numerous awards” from organizations including the Family Research Council, a Christian Right lobbying group and think tank formed in the early 1980s by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
The Eagle Forum, launched by Phyllis Schlafly, recently named Vitter in a “Hero Trio,” three senators who stood up to kill the Kyl-Kennedy immigration bill that conservatives claimed would give “amnesty” to 12 million illegal immigrants.
Vitter, who once wrote in an op-ed article that former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities and lying made him unfit to govern, has been a leading proponent of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
He signed the Family Research Council’s Marriage Protection Pledge.
“Marriage is a core institution of societies throughout the world and is a bedrock institution for our own society because it has provided permanence and stability for our very social structure,” Vitter said in a press release in 2006.
As a Congressman in 2002, Vitter worked to overturn a law granting marriage benefits to the domestic partners of District of Columbia employees. He introduced a resolution to show Senate and House support for having prayer at meetings of school boards and co-sponsored legislation to deny funding under the federal Title X family planning program to private agencies that provide abortions.
In 2001 Vitter co-sponsored a bill to set requirements for doctors to prescribe the so-called “abortion pill,” RU 486.
All that would make him hard to replace for social conservatives, who only weeks ago were accusing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney of hypocrisy for denouncing pornography despite profiting from it being offered in hotel rooms for nearly a decade while he sat on the board of Mormon-owned Marriott Hotels.
“There’s room to make a mistake and come back,” Perkins was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. Calling Vitter a personal friend, Perkins said he would vote for the senator if he proves he has “moved on.”
Billy McCormack, pastor of University Baptist Church in Shreveport and leader of the Louisiana Christian Coalition, said Christians would likely forgive Vitter.
“Sen. Vitter has apologized for his indiscretion and his sins,” McCormack told the Shreveport Times. “Sen. Vitter may well be much more able as a senator now than before because people tend to learn from their mistakes when they are responsible. I will continue to support him fervently.”
On Thursday the non-profit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washingtonfiled a Senate Ethics complaint against Vitter asking for an investigation into whether he violated the Senate Rules of Conduct.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.