Even when it seems that each day brings another revelation of a public official caught with his principles down, it’s still head-spinning news when Cabarrus County Commissioner Coy Privette is arrested on charges of doing business with a prostitute.
The 74-year-old grandfather is a Baptist minister who served in churches in Salisbury and Kannapolis. He has served on the board of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at Wake Forest. As president of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, he’s long been a standard bearer against drinking, pornography, homosexuality, gambling and other practices the group deems sinful or otherwise corrosive to the well-being of society. Like many public officials on the religious right (and, increasingly, those on the religious left), Privette has not been reluctant to offer his personal faith as the cornerstone of the principles he espoused in public office, something he alluded to a couple of years ago after voters gave him an easy victory in the Republican primary. “I must be reflecting their values,” he said. “Good conservative values.”
At this point, the charges against Privette are just that ó charges. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, and he deserves the same presumption of innocence accorded anyone elsewhere. But the charges themselves raise a question often debated in such cases. Even if Privette is guilty, are these alleged transgressions more a personal or a public matter? What bearing do they have on education funding, property tax rates, financing for a biotech research campus or any number of other issues that commissioners debate? Is this really news, or is it one of those sad, unseemly episodes where family members should be left to grapple in private with their pain and emotional upheaval?
For part of the answer, we might turn to Privette himself. “Public service is a sacred trust,” he has said, “and I take those words of Thomas Jefferson seriously.” As for how personal behavior relates to public trust, consider this statement from the Christian Action League: “We discourage the promotion and use of beverage alcohol and other drugs, pornography, sexual immorality and other sinful practices that not only undermine the spiritual lives of those who participate in them, but also undermine the strength of our State and National character.” By this reckoning, the wages of sin aren’t simply individual death but have direct implications for cultural decay.
For another part of the answer, consider that Privette ó an elected official ó is accused of breaking a law. Wherever individuals may put prostitution on their personal seismic scale of crimes and misdemeanors, it’s prohibited by North Carolina statute. Nor, as some argue, is it a victimless crime. It’s a sordid practice that demeans purveyor as well as customer, while encouraging the view of sex as just one more salable commodity. In this case, it would also constitute adultery.
If the charges against Privette stand, there will be many victims here. Foremost among them would be his family and friends and his own reputation. But the victims also would include those who trusted him to exercise principled leadership and practice the moral values he preached.
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