It's fascinating to see how French the southern conservatives can be, when they decide to shelve their moral principles.

Mark Sanford banked on that happening, and he cashed in. South Carolina's "love guv," who infamously faux-walked the Appalachian Trail while in reality stoking his extramarital Argentinian flame at taxpayer expense (and lying about it), completed his Christian redemption tour last night with a nine-point win over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special House election. He says he was "saved by God's grace." He now returns to Congress, where he once voted to impeach President Clinton for lying about extramarital sex ("I think what he did was reprehensible").

This election result is hardly a surprise. As I wrote back on April 3, "the Christian conservatism that would seem likely to destroy him - he cheated on his wife, lied about it, and ultimately dumped his wife - is the same strain of conservatism that seems to be saving him. For wayward southern politicians, it's actually a great deal. They can stray from the family nest and violate God's tenets - and then they can go to the voters and seek Christian forgiveness....No wonder Sanford keeps invoking what he calls 'the God of second chances.' Politically speaking, it's like a get-out-of-jail-free card. His Republican (candidacy) is proof that southern Christian conservatism fosters its own culture of permissiveness."

In a way, it's also very French - oui?

At first glance, the French have nothing in common with South Carolinians. (The French have no interest in evangelical Christianity, and they would never abide Waffle House.) But there seems to be some overlap on the issue of moral relativism. Just as the French greet straying politicians with a Gallic shrug, conservative southern Republicans forgive such trespasses when they deem it convenient.

Gov. Sanford covered up his affair, inducing his staffers to lie for him, until it was impossible to keep lying. He then proceeded to lie about the issue of taxpayer funds: "To be very clear, no public money was ever used...to advance my admitted unfathfulness." But when reporters dug into the public records, it soon became very clear that he had used public money. Only when he was cornered did he personally reimburse the money. The Republican legislature chose not to impeach him, formally censuring him instead.

Mindful of those '09 events, conservative voters in last night's House race gave a Gallic shrug. (David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican "family values" senator who was caught with hookers in 2007, but re-elected in 2010, no doubt nodded knowingly.) Indeed, when Sanford's tally was announced last night, I couldn't help but remember how the French reacted in 1996, when President Francois Mitterrand's mistress and illegitimate daughter showed up at his funeral - at the widow's invitation, no less. In a national poll, 71 percent of citizens said they weren't scandalized.

Southern Republicans mimicking the French - that's the most legitimate spin, in the wake of Sanford's win. Even a disgraced politician who breaches the marriage pact and is censured for breaking state ethics rules will be cleansed of his sins if he has the correct ideology.

And how fascinating it is to read the post-election spin from the GOP's House election strategists. Earlier this spring, after Sanford was caught trespassing at his ex-wife's house, the National Republican Congressional Committee summarily cut him loose, cut off his campaign money. But after the results rolled in last night, all mention of sin was instantly erased - and it was back to the ideological barricades: "Democrats spent more than $1 million trying to elect a candidate who was backed by the Democrat machine, but at the end of the day, running on the Obama-Pelosi ticket was just too toxic for Elizabeth Colbert Busch."

The NRCC is probably right about that. Ideology clearly trumped morality, in a House district that has never elected a Democrat since the dawn of the modern GOP era ushered in by Ronald Reagan. And Sanford represented most of that district anyway, during his earlier stint in Congress.

Speaking of Congress, Sanford critiqued the place quite accrurately in an interview back in 1998: "This is a human institution. Take it as a given that weird stuff goes on." His career revived by a Gallic shrug, he should fit right in.

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Thanks to legislative action yesterday, Delaware became the 11th state to legalize gay marriage - five days after gay marriage took the same route in Rhode Island; and six months after ballot wins in Maryland, Maine, and Washington. Legislatures in Minnesota and Illinois may soon act as well.

Quote of the day, from Delaware state senator Karen Peterson, who has lived with a female partner for two decades: "If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage."

Gee. Remember those not-too-distant days when gay marriage foes insisted that the issue should be determined by the people's elected representatives?

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