How We Judge Dennis Hastert

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.”

The visiting pastor at our church last Sunday preached on this text from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. EVERYONE, he stressed. The gospel is for everyone. It’s for criminals, for drug abusers, for people you and I probably don’t think are worthy of it. And fresh off of reading the morning news, I made a mental addition to the list: The gospel is for accused sexual predators, like the disgraced former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert.

Once second in line to the American Presidency, Hastert is now an outcast. The longest-serving Republican Speaker ever to hold that position is now set to become little more than a punchline on late-night TV comedies. The indictment against him outlines a lurid tale of millions of dollars allegedly promised – and partially delivered – to the alleged victim of Hastert’s molestation, from long ago when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois – hush money to keep his misdeeds from ever seeing the light of day.

And to sweeten the irony for millions of voyeurs, Hastert (called Denny by all his powerful friends), was a poster child for evangelical Christian politics. His name was emblazoned on a building at Wheaton College, arguably America’s premier Evangelical school of higher learning. He enjoyed the prestige of a seat on one of Wheaton’s boards. He sported a 100% political rating from the Christian Coalition, with all the expected stances on gays, abortion and sex education.

And Wheaton College’s Hastert Center (officially the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government & Public Policy) listed as its core mission the advancement of “the redeeming effects of the Christian worldview on the practice of business, government and politics.”

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

So you can imagine the conundrum faced by Wheaton’s administrators when the dreadful news exploded into the headlines last week. How could a name symbolizing homosexual abuse adorn a college building dedicated to the “Christian worldview” of government?

Not surprisingly, Wheaton announced that it was “saddened and shocked.” The language in their press release was pious and measured, including promises “to pray for all involved” who may have been “harmed by any inappropriate behavior.” But if their words were polite, their actions were much more decisive: Hastert was summarily removed from the Hastert Center’s Board of Advisors, and his name was scrubbed from the center as well. It’s now called the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, & Public Policy.

So, goodbye Denny. It’s like we never knew you. One day, you’re an Evangelical titan. The next, you’re invisible, forgotten – anathema.

Now, Wheaton and the white American Evangelical world didn’t have much of a choice, did they? But I find it more interesting that nothing else about Hastert’s legacy bothered us, up until now. We were perfectly happy forging alliances with this powerful rainmaker until something salacious hit the newsstands. So, why weren’t we at all troubled at the litany of well-known practices that served as hallmarks of the ex-Speaker’s career? Consider:

The Speaker of Earmarks: As House Speaker, Hastert presided over the era of uncontrolled “earmarks” during the George W. Bush administration, the process by which lawmakers inserted unrelated subsidies and appropriations into important bills, mainly to deliver pork-barrel perks back home, or to reward political donors. The military appropriations bill for the 2000 fiscal year contained 997 earmarks. Under Hastert’s speakership, by 2005, that number had grown to 2,506 earmarks. In 2000, the largest domestic spending bill, which funded labor, health and education programs, had 491 pet projects. By 2005, it had 3,014.

Publicly, everyone hated earmarks. But under Denny, they ran rampant until the $450 million “Bridge to Nowhere” scandal brought down Alaska’s senior senator and (together with a related bribery conviction) shocked the nation into taking action against them.

Corrupt Self-Dealing: One of Hastert’s own earmarks was for $207 million in Federal money to build a new highway in Kendall Country, Illinois. It happened that the new road ran right past about 90 acres of farmland owned by the Speaker himself. Overnight, the land became suitable for a 1,600-home residential development project, netting Hastert an estimated profit of about $4 million within a few months of the earmark’s passage.

Merchants of Death: It’s common for powerful lawmakers to cash in on their influence when out of office by moving a few blocks from the Capitol to join the legion of lobbyists on Washington’s K Street. Hastert became a top player at the firm of Dickstein Schapiro, which showered him with compensation dwarfing his congressional salary for the sake of his connections to those in power. His largest client was Lorillard Tobacco, which was convicted of fraud and racketeering for denying and concealing the links between smoking and cancer, for funding front groups designed to raise doubts about the consensus of medical science, and for handing out free cigarettes to black children to breed a lifetime of addiction.

For Lorillard, Hastert’s job was to get his friends in Congress to expedite approval of candy-flavored tobacco products. Candy-flavored? Oh my goodness.

Merchants of Doubt: At Dickstein Schapiro, Hastert’s other big client was Peabody Coal. The largest privately-owned coal company in the world, Peabody relied on Hastert to persuade Congress that climate change is nothing to worry about. He was dramatically successful. In the Senate, as recently as January 2015, 49 GOP Senators (all but five of them) voted against a nonbinding bill affirming the scientific consensus that human emissions are significant contributors to climate change.

Still, in all this, America’s flagship Evangelical college apparently had no qualms. Presiding over a grab-what-you-can culture of earmarks, including those that fatten your own bank account? Not our business. Rake in consulting fees on behalf of companies that prey on children and the poor? Who are we to judge? Help to block the entire world from acting on a massive environmental problem of global scope? Let’s not touch that controversial topic.

But, fall prey to accusations that you’ve done something sexually immoral? Well that’s easy. Sayonara Denny! We can’t deal with a sinner like you.

Now, it’s not that Christians must never call out immorality, injustice, and every other type of sin. The New Testament prophet John the Baptist screamed at his hearers: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Terrified and convicted, they begged him: “What then shall we do?”

We might think he would say something about sexual promiscuity, or profanity, or religious observance, but that would be a mistake. Whoever has two shirts, he said, share one with the person who has none. The same goes for food. And you in power, don’t take money from those under your control, even if you have the power.

Is that it? Actually, yes. That’s it.

If John the Baptist (or Jeremiah or Isaiah or Micah) is watching the Hastert saga play out, he might well be upset about lots of things. Of course, if the life of a high-school student in Illinois has been traumatized, the prophet will likely have some choice words for the ex-Speaker. But he’s almost certainly not ignoring all those dollars & cents either. Hastert’s kids may inherit the millions he’s made trading influence for wealth. Your kids will inherit the national debts piled up through all those unsavory appropriations bills. Your kids will subsidize the health costs from his tobacco clients. And your kids will inherit a broken climate system from our persistent inaction on global climate change, the key goal of Hastert’s coal client.

Fellow Christians, I’m not asking that we appoint ourselves to be the judges of men and women. But when we do make judgments, as Wheaton College has been forced to do, maybe we could look hard to assure that those judgments are the same ones we find in sacred scripture.

What shall we do? Maybe the Bible has answers long ignored.

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