Letter to an Aging Conservative: Love, Death and Dinesh D’Souza

When the news broke that Dinesh D’Souza, the mastermind behind the hit movie “Obama: 2016”, would step down from the presidency of King’s College because he engaged himself to a young woman before legally filing for divorce from his wife of 20 years, I was more sad than angry.

I would not be writing to you about any of this except for the peculiar defense that Dinesh himself made of his own actions, and the light it sheds on the state of all our marriage vows, especially within Christian communities.

A little background:

Dinesh D’Souza graduated from Dartmouth the year after I graduated from Yale. I never knew him well, but all of us Yale conservatives were cheered by the upstart founders of the Dartmouth Review, who as a group have gone on to great prominence.

No media star flew higher than Dinesh’s (unless maybe it was his fellow Dartmouth Review alum Laura Ingraham).

Dinesh wrote New York Times best sellers; he served turns at respected intellectual venues, including  the American Enterprise Institute,and Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He tackled everything from affirmative action to the New Atheism and Letters to a Young Conservativebefore writing The Roots of Obama’s Rage (in which he grounds the president’s worldview in the anti-colonalism of his Kenyan father.)

Along the way, Dinesh found time to denounce the negative effects of cultural liberalism, too. In a 2003 interview, he was asked, “What is the most serious flaw in contemporary liberal thinking?”

“Contemporary liberalism has three major flaws, all of which flow from its excessively benign view of human nature,” Dinesh said.  “The Big Government flaw, which was introduced by Franklin Roosevelt, the Give Peace a Chance flaw, which was introduced by the Vietnam protesters, and the Moral Irresponsibility flaw, which was a product of the ‘do your own thing’ ethos of the 1960s.”

Along way,  the Catholic Dinesh married evangelical Dixie Brubaker, had a daughter, and became evangelical enough for King’s College, the feisty young Manhattan college founded by Campus Crusade for Christ, to ask him to be president at a reported 7-figure salary.

In September 2012,  D’Souza’s star flew yet higher:  Obama 2016, his second documentary, became a surprise box office hit, grossing $33 million to date–the 4th best-selling U.S. documentary film of all time.

In other words, Dinesh D’Souza is one very hot property in the Christian conservative world, which is not long on either filmmakers or intellectuals.

So when his former King’s College colleague Marvin Olasky broke the story in Worldmagazine that Dinesh D’Souza shared a hotel room with a 28 year old woman (which Dinesh denies) and  that he had become engaged to this same woman before filing for divorce from his wife (which Dinesh does not), it was a big deal.

Dinesh’s defense is peculiar.

We know for sure–because Dinesh tells us–that 3 months ago, he met a 28 year-old woman.  On September 28, as the keynote speaker at a conference at First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he introduced this young woman as his fiancé. He did not file for divorce from his wife of 20 years until Oct 4.

He claims to have been separated from his wife for 2 years, at his wife’s insistence, but his wife did not file for divorce during that time period (despite the 7-figure salary!).  Some online media outlets are reporting his young “fiancé” herself was a newlywed–married on December 30, 2011 according to what appears to be her Facebook page–but that has not been confirmed.

By his own account then, Dinesh D’Souza decided to divorce his wife only after falling in love with a young woman  half his age, whom he has known for 3 months.

And he went on to make this extraordinary statement for a man in his fifties:

“I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced, even though in a state of separation and in divorce proceedings.  Obviously I would not have introduced Denise as my fiancé at a Christian apologetics conference if I had thought or known I was doing something wrong.”

Then, showing he has missed the entire crux of the issue, he concludes, “But as a result of all this, and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, Denise and I have decided to suspend our engagement.”

Then Dinesh lashed out at the messenger, further compromising the idea he sees his behavior as problematic in any way:

“Ultimately this is not just about Olasky or even World magazine.  It is also about how we Christians are supposed to behave with one another. And the secular world is watching. Is this how we love and treat fellow believers? . . . .here is a clear attempt to destroy my career and my ministry.  This is viciousness masquerading as righteousness.  And this is the behavior that is truly worthy of Christian condemnation.”

Of course, the World magazine story sent folks at the Daily Beast and Huffington Post into full-throated howls of glee.  There is nothing that a modern sexual liberal loves more than to catch a Christian conservative in sexual improprieties about which they care nothing, as if sin proves moral truth does not exist.

But really, a fiftysomething married man, leader of an evangelical college, whose separation from his wife was never announced to the world, and who has not filed for divorce, can introduce another woman as his fiancé at a Christian conference–and the only behavior “truly worthy of Christian condemnation” is publishing a story about it?

On Thursday,  the news broke that Dinesh’s business partners are in court also accusing Dinesh of breaking his word to them, illegally (they say) attemping to seize control of the company, and diverting company funds to pay for travel for his girlfriend who he told them was his assistant. Ironically, Dinesh’s business partners have more clout in court than Dinesh’s wife, thanks to no-fault divorce.

There is one consolation in this mess: At least there still remains a world in which getting engaged to one woman while married to another raises red flags.  We have to thank King’s College and Marvin Olasky’s World magazine for that.

The scandal will be short lived.  We know how this story ends. Just ask Newt Gingrich.

Or ask King’s College’s Chairman of the Board Andy Mills who reassured  King’s College students: “God has a mighty future in store for Dinesh, but he has some things he has to go through first.”

Dinesh will jettison his wife, as fast as California’s legal system can process it.   Her wishes will not matter to the law, or really to anyone else but her mother.  He will then marry whom he chooses.  After a few years–or most likely weeks–even in the most conservative evangelical circles, the ‘scandal” will die down, forgiveness will triumph,  and his new wife will be as the most respectable matron in the world.

Given the inevitable happy ending already written for him, would it be  such a small thing to ask, out of respect for his wife and his children and his faith community,  that a rich and powerful man would pause long enough to act out the whole Kabuki ritual of Christian repentance and forgiveness in the proper sequence? Such a small thing to ask.  Such a petty thing, perhaps, to worry about.

And yet in another sense one can hardly blame Dinesh for wondering why compressing these formalities –shortening the time span between marriage, divorce, engagement, remarriage–is such a big deal: why postpone joy?

Why wait until you are actually divorced from one wife before announcing the happy news you’ve given in to the urge to merge with a new one?

Sigh.

There’s something bigger at stake in this story than the fate of Dinesh D’Souza.

The “scandal” of whether or not Dinesh D’Souza technically committed an act of  adultery that night in the Comfort Inn Suites in Spartanburg, South Carolina seems to me to be rather beside the point.

Adultery is a grave sin, but it’s the sin of giving yourself a partial and secretive divorce from a sacred vow—of unilaterally taking back under your own’s control what you gave to your spouse at the altar, the gift of your whole body. Remember?  “The body of the husband belongs to the wife.” (And vice versa.)

If this is why adultery is wrong, how can breaking the whole marriage vow openly and explicitly (which is what a divorce is) make it morally any better?

Of course for a marriage culture,  there are some important advantages to making the divorce explicit:  if not for your own children,  for the community at large.

Remember, when Jesus objected to divorce, the Pharisees replied, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

The law of Moses was a definite moral and social advance over what preceded it–total privatization of divorce under the control of the man (as remains the  theoretical moral law in Islam). Because a public certificate at least made  it clear to the community at large:  this woman is now freed for an honorable new marital relationship.

Notice something important here: marriage as a bright line legal institution thus does more than regulate the relationship between husband and wife, it regulates the relationships between the couple and the community. Think of Dinesh the next time some bright young evangelical urges the privatization of marriage as the solution to our current gay marriage fight.

It’s hard to sustain communal norms if you can’t tell who is married and who is not.

Without a bright public line, how do we even know if a man is committing adultery?  How does a woman know if she’s invading another woman’s marriage?  How can she even tell for sure, if she’s having an out of wedlock birth?

If marriage were privatized, how would Christian conference attendees ever know if they are witnessing and condoning open and flagrant adultery?

A  certificate of divorce wasn’t enough for Jesus, but it was certainly an advance over a merely private and personal divorce, which is really something of what Dinesh D’Souza appears to have granted himself.

Dinesh’s wife is not talking, bless her, but she apparently refused to uproot their daughter and travel with him to New York when he took over the reigns of King’s College.

At some point that became in Dinesh’s mind  the moral equivalent of a divorce.  He privately and psychologically annulled his own marriage vows, leaving himself free in his own mind to fall in love, to woo, to promise to wed a young woman, who may or may not herself have been free to marry.

Funny thing, when Dinesh went to justify his engagement, he turned back to the law for moral support: “I sought out advice about whether it is legal to be engaged prior to being divorced and I was informed that it is. Denise and I were trying to do the right thing,” he reports.

Apparently it’s not just those young people, Dinesh, we all need more support from the law, to do the right thing with our freedoms.

I don’t know if government has the solution, but the Christian community, as we are now constituted, clearly does not.  Not yet.

There is no subject on which Jesus was more clear and direct than that divorce violate’s God’s vision for marriage:

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” He said.

When the shocked Pharisees replied, why then did Moses approve giving a certificate of divorce?

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus said, and then according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to his shocked disciples, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [Greek: “porneia”], and marries another, commits adultery.”

The exception for “porneia” reported in Matthew is not contained in Mark or Luke, and its meaning in this context has puzzled Biblical scholars.  It was often translated by Protestants as fornication, but that can’t be right because a married woman cannot by definition commit fornication.  It probably doesn’t mean adultery, because there is a specific word for adultery, one that is often paired with porneia in the New Testament in a way that makes it clear they mean somewhat different things.

For a persuasive case that “porneia” means “illegal marriage” in this context–a relationship that cannot be a marriage, and not “sexual immorality” in general— see, for examplehttp://www.groverproctor.us/sb/sb-adul.txt.

But not even the traditional Protestant understanding of this exception is not going to help Dinesh much, because nothing in the New Testament justifies granting yourself a divorce from your marriage vows because you’ve fallen in love with a 28 year old who worships the ground upon which you walk.

It’s the little pagan baby with the bow and arrow talking, not the Bible.

When Dan Savage goes around the country telling Christian young people “we can get over the bullsh**t in the Bible,” when it comes to gay marriage,  Christian acceptance of divorce is his Exhibit A.

Outside the Bible, the empirical case that divorce harms is growing.  I could cite you chapter and verse, but let me just offer one or two examples from a mountain of recent data.

A 2012  study in the International Journal of Public Health  “Parental Divorce and Longevity”looked at 6,928 adults who lived in Alameda County, California whose parents divorced before they were 16. After controlling for age, race,  and childhood socioeconomic status, adults whose parents divorce experienced “lowered well-being in adulthood” and reduced “long-term survival” compared to adults whose parents got and stayed married.

A very sophisticated recent study by  Sylvana Robbers and colleagues looked at 4592 identical and fraternal twin pairs to try to discover whether genetic tendencies could account for the relationship between parental divorce and problem behavior in pre-teens.

“We previously reported that 12-year-olds with divorced parents showed more internalizing and externalizing problems than children with married parents,”  they write.  But this study showed that “For both pre- and post-divorce internalizing and externalizing problems, the total variances were larger for children from divorced families, which was mainly due to higher environmental variances. As a consequence, heritabilities were lower for children from divorced families, and the relative contributions of environmental influences were higher.”

What does this mean? “Environmental influences become more important in explaining variation in children’s problem behaviors in the context of parental divorce.”   (Sylvana Robbers et al., “Childhood Problem Behavior and Parental Divorce: Evidence for Gene-Environment Interaction,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47(10) 2012.www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3438396/)

With divorce, young adolescents become uniquely and newly vulnerable to problem behaviors.

Divorce makes it harder for young women to trust men, or either sex to trust marriage.

“Using survey data from a sample of over 2,000 college students (1,297 females and 780 males) we use structural equation modeling to investigate the role of commitment to marriage, desired characteristics in an intimate partner, and sociosexuality in linking the influence of family structure and supportive parenting to risky sexual behaviors,” reports a study headed by Leslie Gordon Simons and colleagues, “Results indicate that respondents from continuously married families were more committed to marriage, and this commitment reduced the probability of risky sexual behavior both directly, as well as indirectly through its negative impact on unrestricted sociosexuality.” Leslie Gordon Simons et al., “Identifying Mediators of the Influence of Family Factors on Risky Sexual Behavior,” Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2012.

Divorce not only shakes a teenager’s faith in men–it puts children’s faith in God at risk.

“Parental breakup is associated with religious decline among . . .youth characterized by high levels of religious salience,”  according to a study by Melina Lundquist Denton, “Family Structure, Family Disruption, and Profiles of Adolescent Religiosity” in the March 2012 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Oh and divorce hurts not just kids, it hurts Mom too.

Not your child’s mom (I’m taking that for granted) your own mom:  “Using a large panel survey among parents with longitudinal information on 2 randomly chosen children, the authors analyzed the effects of children’s union formation, parenthood, and union dissolution on changes in depressive symptoms of parents,” report Matthijs Kalmin and Paul M. De Graaf, “ Negative effects were found for children’s divorce, and positive effects were found for children’s marriage and parenthood. Mothers suffered more from a child’s divorce or separation than fathers.

(Matthijs Kalmin and Paul M. De Graaf, “Life Course Changes of Children and Well- Being of Parents,” Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2012.)

Of course Dinesh is not the only one doing “it.”.  The divorce rate among people age 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010 (partly a result of growing age at first marriage and remarriage). One in four divorces now takes place to a spouse over the age of 50, according to a brand new study by Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin“The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults, 1990–2010,” released online October 9 in the  Journal of Gerontology.

In other words to people way old enough to know better.

But don’t worry,  if you, like Dinesh, do remarry in late middle age,  your second marriage’s risk of divorce at this advanced age will be 2.5 times higher, on average.

Look, I don’t say these things in the spirit of anger or even righteous condemnation.

If we  were close friends, I would plead with  Dinesh:  Don’t do this.  Don’t do this to your child.  Don’t do this to the wife of your youth.  Don’t do this to your mom. Don’t do this to your own soul.

Don’t do this to your religious compatriots. Don’t do this to those former students of yours at King’s College, young and idealistic and hopeful about marriage, scarred by and scared to death about divorce.

Don’t do this to all of us, or any of one of us.

If I were Dinesh’s mother from Bombay I would say, And please, please, please don’t do this to marry a woman you’ve known just 3 months, especially if she’s leaving her husband of 6 months to be with you.  It has “karma” written all over it.

I buried my own mother this summer.

Perhaps that’s what makes me feel so urgently that time is just too short to let that wretched little imperious winged baby with the bow and arrow have his fickle way with you.

Is being true to your marriage and your kids so hard after all?  So much to ask?  Such a horrible cross to bear?

Here’s what marriage is: You take into your heart and your body and your soul and your bank account–just one person, just one person that you get to choose.

You promise to love that one person the way that God loves everyone, without conditions, until death do you part–that and to love and care for any children God sends you together in one family.

Love her.  Love him.  Keep your vows close.  Keep your people closer.

Show your children, show other people’s children that in this short, swift race between love and death that is all any of our lives is,  love can be trusted.

If Christians could just do that, and nothing else, it would transform our culture.

If we cannot do that, I fear, nothing else will.

2 thoughts on “Letter to an Aging Conservative: Love, Death and Dinesh D’Souza

  1. A very sobering article. We all need to “watch and pray” lest we find ourselves in a position such as this.Reminds me of an old qoute:”The brevity of life grants power to abide,not an excuse to bail.”

  2. Hard truths, Maggie. Thank you for having the courage to speak them.

    I wonder if our growing ease with divorce and adultery is the symptom rather than the illness? Now that we have stepped away from the one man, one woman template, how do we, purely as a legal argument, say ‘no’ to marriage of any number, age and even species of participants? Without God as the ultimate source of morality in civil society, any other standards are mere opinion, hence fungible.

    W.B. Yeats in his poem ‘The Second Coming’ wrote, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’