Mark Sanford resigns as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain.)

Mark Sanford is back, in case you haven't heard. You know, the South Carolina governor who suddenly disappeared for weeks in June of 2009. He had told his staff, in the formulation that immediately became infamous, that he was off to "hike the Appalachian Trail," then did not answer fifteen cell phone calls from his chief of staff and neglected to contact his family on Father's Day, for he was actually in Argentina with his lover, who is now his fiancée. He then told the Associated Press he could die now, "knowing I had met my soul mate." He also admitted he had "crossed the line" with several other women during his twenty-year marriage. And then, last week, he emerged from the political, um, wilderness to win a sixteen-way primary for the Republican nomination to replace a retiring Congressman in South Carolina's 1st District, an office he held from 1995 to 2001, in a district that went Republican in 1980 and never looked back. Which is to say, contemporary politics' most flamboyant philanderer is almost certainly heading back to Congress—unless Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Stephen Colbert's sister, scores an upset—sent there as emissary of a party that has made "family values" its calling card for over a generation.

It drives us liberals and lefties to distraction: How do Republicans absorb all that hypocrisy without their heads exploding? Here I am, again, to explain: nothing new under the wingnut sun. I wrote at length about the same subject in 2007, when another conservative solon, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, hung on comfortably after revelations he was a client of a D.C. prostitute, and allegations of activities with hookers back home of the sort ordinary mortals only learn about from reading some of Dan Savage's stranger columns. Quite the "family values" dude, was David Vitter: a senator who said he didn't "believe there's any issue" more important than a Constitutional amendment to "protect the sanctity of traditional marriage," who compared the devastation of gay marriage to the Hurricanes Rita and Katrina combined, and was adjudged a "true social conservative" in 2003 by the right-wing Religious Freedom Coalition. And yet he handily won reelection from the Deep South family values voters of Louisiana, winning the Republican primary by a margin of 80 points.

I noted, too, the case of the still-thriving public profile of Newt Gingrich despite his serial infidelities, including while working to impeach Bill Clinton; Rush Limbaugh, despite getting caught with boner pills after an apparent hookerfest in the Dominican Republic, and also about the redemption of Ted Haggard—"Husband of Gayle, father of 5, author," and pastor of his own new church in his hometown of Colorado Springs, he brags on his website. That despite getting caught using meth with a male prostitute in 2006, even as he organized for Colorado's ban on same-sex marriage.

When, I asked, would conservative Christians wake up to their leaders' hypocrisy? I answered, "they will never 'wake up.'" And argued how "conservative Christianity is a culture radically different from that of secular (or even religious) liberalism, and that to understand the political meaning of events like this for its members you have to understand that culture's rules. Most importantly, you must understand its rules about sin and redemption. Which are, at heart, an argument about human nature"—a moral argument. "'True social conservatives' don't reject their sinners—because we are all sinners. They call upon them to repent. Which suggests an entirely different political dynamic than the one native to the secular (or even religious) liberal mindset."

I explained Haggard as a perfect case study:

If you believe, as Haggard does, as do all his followers, and their religious tradition going back to time immemorial, that Satan is real, forever laying siege to the faithful, forever providing us tests of our faith, forever reminding us of mankind's inherently sinful nature—well, then, the kind of leader they will most respect would be the kind of person who feels that reality most intensely, and is able to communicate it most convincingly.

In fact, that kind of person may well be a gay man. He feels, and fights, the presence of Satan daily. He may even, one day, fall to His temptations. If he does, that does not mean he is a "hypocrite." It means he is human—all too human!—according to this worldview.

He will fall on his knees and beg the Lord for forgiveness. He will gather around him spiritual leaders, and pray. He will declare, as Haggard declared, ""I am a deceiver and a liar. There's a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life." (Vitter's version was, "This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.") He may, as Gingrich did, receive public absolution from a prominent minister. And after a time in the wilderness, they may return to their constituents' graces, who will bestow on them perhaps even more loyalty and affection than before.

Secular (and even religious) liberals will laugh and scoff, and call the whole sordid right-wing ritual a "free pass to sin."

And this will be a reasonable conclusion. It is true that this whole worldview contains within it a profound possibility of what economists call moral hazard—a perverse incentive built into a system that hastens the possibility of bad instead of good outcomes. (By way of example, conservatives identify welfare payments as moral hazard: if you pay people who do not work, you give them an incentive not to work). The cynical—I would certainly count Gingrich among them—can exploit it to aggrandize their power.

But I have to insist that this worldview is not inherently about whitewashing accountability. At its best, the theology of sin and redemption is real—for those to whom Satan is real—and a real spur to moral living, to community-building, to humility, to compassion, to grace. It can be a genuine and mature worldview—one that recognizes that people are both good and evil, both autonomous and compulsive, loving and hateful.

Well, sometimes; sometimes it's just a hustle. Anyway my point here is not to judge whether sinning politicians' contrition is genuine or not. My point is to note how this stuff works politically: convince your constituency you've sincerely repented, and just about any measure of electoral redemption is possible. Sin and redemption is a feature for conservative Christian voters, not a bug; as I noted, a David Vitter, declaring himself once-lost but now-found, would not, "as we would prefer, repent of his rather cruel crusade for the 'sanctity of marriage.' More likely, he'll emerge all the more effective a spokesman for it. For who would know better than someone like him just how fragile the institution of marriage truly is? Who better, indeed, than someone who has fought the devil face to face, and lost?"

And also the opposite: being seen as an unredeemed politician is a profound liability. Once, when Ralph Reed was running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, a friend who comes from a Pentecostal background and I helped an independent group write an anti-Reed TV commercial. Their original draft used a picture of Reed looking nasty and scary, and simply reviewed his various actions Christians would consider offensive, which were, of course, prodigious—not least sabotaging one Indian tribe's application for a gambling license, on behalf of his client, another Indian tribe. My Pentecostal friend suggested the following revision: feature not a scary picture of Reed but a cherubic one—Satan, in scripture, is a great deceiver, forever cloaking his presence in an inviting guise—and emphasizing, in the copy, not that Reed was a sinner (we are all sinners), but that he was unrepentant. Reportedly, the commercial was quite effective; in any event, Ralph Reed lost.

But look: here comes a curveball—a fascinating one, one I don't quite know what to make of yet.

Mark Sanford is unredeemed. Instead of leaving his mistress, returning to home and hearth, and falling on his knees to beg for forgiveness, he left his wife and proposed to his mistress. "Social conservatives" duly cast him aside: "Send a Christian to Congress," read a sign outside one local church; "We need to put a real Christian in Congress,” said another. That real Christian, the 1st District's politicized pastors insisted, was a man named Curtis Bostic, one of their own; vote for Sanford, wrote a Bostic supporter, and "you will answer for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ, should you truly have salvation in your heart, is a terrible place of, oh yes, judgment. Paul warns of the pain many will experience there."

And lo, Curtis Bostic lost.

What gives, SC social conservatives? Here are some possibilities. One is that, simply, in a sixteen-way special election, name recognition is all, and the former governor was the one who had it. Another intriguing possibility, entertained by a columnist in the Charleston alternative newspaper, is that 1st District voters are romantics—embracing the man who campaigned forthrightly by the side of the woman he loved, precisely because he refused to apologize for love—"a gutsy, almost scandalous move that somehow worked."

But here's another possibility: that Dixie Christers have heard the sin-and-redemption routine so often from their politicians that it has dulled their sensibilities altogether, so much so that it doesn't even occur to them to check whether their sinners are "repentant." That so many of their politicians break their stated principles flagrantly, and so often, their repentance so pro-forma and routine, that “sins” have ceased to signify any more.

If so, how handy for sinning conservative public figures. And how ghastly for their poor, suffering constituents. Who, after all, are never really harmed in any objective sense by the proximate crime—the sex. It's the cover-up that really screwed them. For in sending Mark Sanford back into public office, voters are not merely forgiving his lust. They are forgiving his theft from them. The State Ethics Commission's investigation against the governor, after all, centered on multiple counts of misusing state funds to visit his mistress in South America. Other abuses including using a state plane to fly off to get his hair cut.

Sex: what a handy distraction from a more uncontroversial harm—ripping people off. Consider the case of Ted Haggard. That new church he brags about on his web site? As the Colorado Springs Gazette reports, it isn't actually a church at all. It's his house—which he incorporated as a church, Haggard explains, "to keep the accounting in order" for his paid lectures. "The Haggards incur out-of-pocket expenses while on the road, so St. James is a way to be reimbursed for those costs in an orderly manner, he said."

Christian forgiveness can be a beautiful thing. It can also, it turns out, be quite a lucrative business.

Read Rick Perlstein on why the ends justify the means for conservatives when it comes to winning elections.