Inside the Beltway, there’s a custom known as the Friday afternoon “news dump.” It’s when government officials and other newsmakers release news that’s likely to reflect badly on them. The hope is that by Monday the bad news will have made its way through the news cycle and been replaced by something else.
That’s not what happened the Friday after the election. When retired General David Petraeus announced that he was resigning as the head of the CIA because of an extramarital affair, it was no “forgotten by Monday” story. On the contrary, it’s grown in significance with each passing day.
Since that Friday, we’ve learned more about the lives of people many Americans had placed on a pedestal. There’s no need to rehearse the details of the story—you probably know them as well, if not better than I do. Certainly this is a human tragedy, and certainly the people and their families involved need our prayers.
But what specifically interests me isn’t the particulars of Petraeus’s fall from grace. What I find noteworthy is our reaction to the news.
What seems to be missing is any sense that what he did was none of our business—or otherwise irrelevant to his performance as a public official. In this case the reaction has been contrary to what we usually hear every time a politician is embroiled in a sex scandal.
While some, such as writer Tom Ricks, have argued that Petraeus’s resignation should have not been accepted by the President, the public appears to agree with the General’s decision to resign.
Why? The most obvious and oft-cited reason is that we hold military leaders to a different standard. But again, why?
I think it’s because we view the military as different from the rest of society, a difference that requires different standards of personal conduct.
That difference is perhaps most pronounced when it comes to individualism. America is arguably the most individualistic society on Earth. The idea of the autonomous self permeates our culture and is even enshrined in our constitutional jurisprudence.
While individualism is as old as the republic—de Tocqueville wrote about it in “Democracy in America”—it’s become even more pronounced over the past few decades.
But the exception to this trend has been the military. The discipline and code of honor that Americans admire are, in large part, parts of the process by which service members are taught to think in terms of “we” and not “I.” This transformation in thinking is a vital part of fulfilling the military’s mission.
This mission and the rejection of individualism it requires is part of the reason why Petraeus’s resignation makes sense to most people.
There’s another institution whose mission demands that members think in terms of “we,” instead of “I”; it’s called the Church.
Yet American Christianity is mired in this individualistic mindset right along with the rest of the culture. Most American Christians confuse Christianity being a personal faith with its being an individualistic faith.
While each one of us must respond personally to God’s grace, the result of that response is incorporation into Christ’s body, the Church. There, as Chuck Colson constantly reminded us, we are called to live for others and not for ourselves.
Our failure to live this way may have something to do with the fact that while the public expects its military brass to live honorably, they’re not quite as surprised to hear about a preacher’s fall from grace.
And that’s the really bad news, any day of the week.