Standing before the cameras at North Charleston City Hall two weeks ago, Sen. Glenn McConnell looked like he was the one pleading guilty to ethics violations and resigning his office. Instead, the grim-faced politician was stepping up from the post of Senate president pro tempore to the office of lieutenant governor.
But, in yet another example of South Carolina's bizarre and byzantine politics, McConnell's move was universally regarded as a demotion for the man who was regarded as the most powerful player in state politics. As Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks quipped, McConnell gets to bang the gavel and wear a purple robe — and do little else. It's a big comedown for the man who used to run the state Senate like his own private circus.
McConnell is to be commended for accepting this "demotion," if not quite accepting it with grace. It was assumed by many — including this observer — that he would use his notorious parliamentary skills to sidestep the ceremonious lieutenant governor's office.
Although there was speculation that McConnell would be running for his one-time Senate seat in November, the lieutenant governor announced last week that he will not. However, all of the drama and confusion over this change-up at the Statehouse probably means we will be voting soon on another amendment to patch our state's woefully inadequate and ill-conceived constitution.
But enough about Glenn McConnell. This constitutional crisis was brought on by Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who was indicted on criminal ethics charges for campaign fraud and misuse of campaign contributions for personal expenses.
The details of the scheme do not matter. What is important is that yet another public official has violated the public trust and has been forced from office. Ard is just the latest in a long and colorful tradition of scandal that would include Operation Lost Trust, a federal sting resulting in the conviction of more than 20 members of the General Assembly and other state officials on various bribery and corruption charges; Operation Abscam, another federal sting that led to the conviction of Congressman John Jenrette on bribery and corruption charges; and countless other crimes and misdemeanors leading to the downfall of lesser public figures.
This is not to say that South Carolina is the most corrupt state in the nation — not by a long shot. We cannot measure up to New Jersey, Louisiana, Illinois, and maybe a few others. But what I think makes us distinct is the level of insufferable public piety we provide as a backdrop to our public corruption.
Does any state offer more Bible-thumping, more prayers, more preaching and piety in the public forum than South Carolina? I know of none. And has this shameless behavior made us better people? Has it made our leaders wiser or more honest? The levels of violence, ignorance, poverty, disease, and other quality-of-life indexes would suggest not. And yet we continue to preach and pray and whoop and shout and expect our leaders to do the same. But the truth is that religion is the force that divides us, holds us back, and distracts us from real problems and real solutions.
Of course, most of these distractions involve sex. Right now there are several bills in the General Assembly designed to make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions. Paradoxically (or hypocritically), the same Christian elements that do not want women to have access to abortion services have fought for years to keep sex education out of schools, thus assuring that South Carolina will continue to have one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the nation. Another bill would levy a $100 fine on teens for "sexting." Do our legislators really have nothing better to do? There are still no state laws to protect LGBTs from discrimination in the workplace, but, in 2006, the Christian Right whipped up a great moral crusade to amend our poor old state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Now it seems that God wants South Carolina to have a state day of prayer and Charleston Rep. Chip Limehouse has obliged him with a bill to that effect. I don't know whether Limehouse is pandering to the Almighty or to voters when he says, "I would hope every day would be a day of prayer ... and to those who object, my [question] is, 'Why would we not have prayer in our lives?'"
And my question to all the panderers and the preachers is: Why can't we govern with good policy and common sense, rather than false piety and ideology? We may or may not have any less public corruption, but we will surely have more sound and wise public policy.