A Strong Christian Woman

There are lots of jokes floating around the Internet right now about how Debra LaFave did not really do anything so awful — what 14-year-old boy wouldn’t have wanted to have sex with her? (The gay ones.) LaFave is obviously very attractive, and 14-year-olds are, for the most part, well aware of what sex is and ravenously curious about it. But the law says what it says, and she performed a number of sex acts on one of her students.

I think that her prosecution was proper, although I question the validity of the media’s coverage of it. We’ve seen as much of this “news event” as we have simply because this is a salacious story with a attractive young woman playing the role of the sexual aggressor. The motif could be described as a Hot For Teacher myth, which in turn is nothing more than the affirmance of an adolescent fantasy. A GIS for a picture of Debra LeFave brings you to a website called “Free Debra,” and the intended audience for the site can be readily divined from the advertisements found thereon.

But seriously, folks. LeFave’s behavior suggests that there is something wrong with her. Well-adjusted 26 year-old women are not attracted to 14 year-old boys. And, LeFave has admitted that she suffers from bipolar disorder, and says that she is getting treatment for it. It’s a credible explanation — a bipolar person will do all sorts of things under the influence of the disease. One wonders how her husband could deal with her behavior and stay with her; I don’t know how I would react to that situation. If her behavior was caused by bipolar disorder, and she stays on her meds, she should be OK from here on out. That ought to end it.

But at the end of the article linked in the title, Ms. LeFave makes a comment that is very interesting to me. In the context of discussing her desire to explore a new career in journalism, she says, “I am a strong Christian woman … I believe that God has a path for me, and this was just a bump in the road.”

This is interesting to me not to point out any degree of hypocrisy. I see no hypocrisy here at all — Christians readily admit that they sin from time to time, and sometimes badly; and one of the big points of Christianity is that there is forgiveness for sins. Nobody’s perfect, people make mistakes, and assuming she truly does suffer from bipolar disorder, she was not as able as others to control her own behavior and therefore more likely to make a mistake of this magnitude. If she is Christian and is truly doing the things her religion tells her to do to seek forgiveness for what she did, that’s all for the good in my opinion.

No, it’s interesting to me because it looks like she went well out of her way to mention it. It looks like this is a plea for others to accept her because she professes a popular belief. This is one of the things that really bothers me about a certain flavor of Christianity: the idea that “I’m a Christian, so I’m a good person.” Being Christian doesn’t mean a thing about whether you’re a good person or not. Whether you go to church regularly or not is irrelevant to the question of your morality. It is your behavior which defines your character, not your religion. And in this case, we are talking about an adult who had sex with a 14-year-old.

I have seen quite a lot of this in my law practice — about equal amounts in California and Tennessee, meaning that I’ve seen it about ten times as often in Tennessee as I did in California since I practiced for ten years there and one year here. A lot of my clients have assured me that what they are telling me is the truth even when their stories are patently unbelievable. When I confront them on it, I am told “Well, I’m a Christian, so I cannot tell a lie; that’s how you know I’m telling you the truth.” Survey says: “Not good enough. ” Or, I get, “Yes, I did do that bad thing, but I asked for forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ, so that’s all in my past now.” That’s super, my friend, but let me guarantee one thing to you — the jury isn’t going to see things the same way. And personally, I look at things more like a jury than like Jesus apparently does.

When you are asked to morally justify your behavior, a reference to your religion is a misdirection, indeed, it borders on being a deception.

That’s not to say that there aren’t circumstances where I might overlook, forgive, or (most likely) consider someone’s past misdeeds as superceded by subsequent good deeds. It’s certainly possible that someone could do a lot of good things and those good things define their character much more than past misdeeds. But that tends not to be the case. Instead, too many people use “finding God” as a proxy for true redemption.

I won’t go so far as to say that, for the truly faithful, religion cannot lead them down the path to good moral behavior. Surely, it can; religion provides an elaborate structure of incentives for doing good and an even more elaborate strucutre of disincentives for bad acts. It’s an interesting and open question as to whether one who intends and desires to do a bad act, but does not do so solely out of fear of divine retribution, is truly a good person.

But I will say that claiming you are a “strong Christian” (or a faithful Muslim, or a practicing Jew, or whatever other religion you want) should carry zero weight in evaluating your moral worth.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

One Comment

  1. C’mon, I bet her attorney told her to say that. It’s a way of showing you’ve got a motive to reform and behave beyond the threat of jail.Some 14-year-olds look attractive and adult. It’s one thing to admit they’re attractive — quite another thing to have sex with them.Like male teachers who hit on young female students, I suspect that she has some deficit that people her age can spot and treat her accordingly. Young teens are much easier to impress and control than adults are.

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