Forgive me, America, for I have sinned

Some politicians survive sex scandals. Why? They have perfected the public grovel.

Published October 15, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

It has become one of the predictable spectacles in American public life: a disgraced politician, apologizing for some adulterous shenanigans before a phalanx of microphones, with his grim-faced wife stationed at his side. Europeans are famously baffled by the custom, and ask why we insist on making a career-busting issue out of the love lives of our leaders. Even those Americans who write the whole thing off to our Puritan heritage can't quite figure out why some icons of the political right are forgiven their trespasses -- like Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana -- while others -- say, former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida -- go down in flames. Even when it comes to their own church leaders, religious conservatives seem so unpredictable. Both Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were caught fooling around with women who were not their wives, but Swaggart was embraced while Bakker was jettisoned.

Susan Wise Bauer's "The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America" offers an answer to these conundrums and a canny analysis of American political symbolism. She examines several scandals involving politicians and church leaders, dating back to Grover Cleveland's 1884 presidential campaign (plagued by rumors that he'd fathered an illegitimate child) and the monthlong disappearance of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (suspected of having run off with a married man) in 1926. Some politicians, like Ted Kennedy, never quite managed to shake the taint of their scandals. Others, like Bill Clinton, emerged from the media circus more popular than ever. Bakker's multimillion-dollar PTL ministries enterprise was destroyed. Swaggart was back in the pulpit three months later. Jimmy Carter almost scuttled his first presidential campaign simply by admitting to a magazine journalist that he'd "committed adultery in my heart" (without actually doing anything about it!), and Bernard Cardinal Law was forced to resign because of his inadequate response to child sexual abuse perpetrated by the priests in his charge. As Bauer sees it, the leaders who survive are the ones who have mastered the art of public confession.

"At the end of the 20th century," Bauer writes, "Americans increasingly expected their erring leaders to publicly admit to their sin and ask forgiveness." The roots of this expectation lie in the rituals of evangelical Protestantism and the practice (familiar to everyone from movies and television ministries) of hauling your sorry self to the front of the congregation, proclaiming your sinful ways to the gathered faithful, humbly begging for God's pardon and promising to follow a righteous path in the future. A version of this performance has become de rigueur for straying leaders because of what Bauer regards as "the essential likeness between American democracy and American evangelicalism." The two institutions "share the resemblance not merely of first cousins, but of full siblings."

Horrifying as this notion may be to secular Americans, as Bauer delineates the resemblance, it's not all bad. Its intentions are essentially egalitarian. Confession is a central tenet of Christianity, of course, but public confession has become important in certain Protestant churches because it's meant to keep the prideful, and especially the powerful, in line. It is a way of making rulers accountable to their followers, of reminding them that they lead only with the consent of the led. "We both idolize and hate our leaders," Bauer writes in a particularly psychosocial passage from "The Art of the Public Grovel." "We need and resent them; we want to submit, but only once we are reassured that the person to whom we submit is no better than we are. Behind the demand that leaders publicly confess their sins is our fear that we will be overwhelmed by their power." The leader who effectively admits his weakness, whether before the electorate or his congregation, is assuaging that fear by demonstrating that he does not regard himself as superior or innately entitled to boss his followers around.

It's almost always a sexual transgression that prompts this type of confession, and the culprit is invariably male. That's partly because most American leaders are men, but Bauer feels that a potent, if unconscious metaphor is also at work. The accusation of "predatory sexual behavior" (typically associated with men) arouses acute anxiety in followers, causing them to "fear that they would be deceived and exploited" in other ways "by those to whom they had willingly granted power." If the president can't be trusted with the daughters we send to Washington to work as interns, if the preacher tries to seduce the church secretary in a hotel room, who's to say that these men won't also take advantage of the whole electorate or congregation, using the authority we have invested in them for their own personal gain?

When an evangelical leader gets into this kind of trouble -- Swaggart's motel room tryst with a prostitute or, more recently, Ted Haggard's drug-fueled cavortings with a callboy -- skeptics often marvel that the faithful aren't more shaken by the news. How can they not see that self-righteous fulminating over fornication or homosexuality betrays an unusually keen interest in the same? Isn't it obvious that Swaggart is a horn dog and Haggard a closet case? To ask such questions is to fail to grasp the Manichean drama of the evangelical mind-set, in which every Christian must submit and secure his soul for salvation over and over again (hence the popularity of revival meetings among those who already believe). Evangelicals -- or, as Bauer calls the more recently politicized variety, neoevangelicals -- view each soul as a battleground in which the forces of good wrestle with the forces of evil. "There is a part of my life so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life," Haggard told his congregation when he resigned his pulpit. "The public person I was wasn't a lie; it was just incomplete."

Most evangelicals can identify with such struggles, although their own demons may be gambling or booze instead of hookers. And they know that on occasion, even within the most devout soul, the good side will lose, if only temporarily. Instead of undermining a preacher's appeal, such backsliding, if properly confessed and repented, humanizes a leader. To a working-class flock that harbors a constitutional mistrust of "elites" who think they're "better than us," an incident like this assures them that the man in charge understands their own fight to remain on the path of virtue. Furthermore, in recent decades evangelicals have come to see society at large as the site of an ongoing contest between good and evil; it is a mirror of the conflict within the individual Christian's soul, and every soul won for Jesus brings the world that much closer to the Second Coming. The leader who has spectacularly gotten himself back on track with God is also demonstrating to his followers and everybody which side he's on.

To pull this off, the sinner in question must expertly handle the argot and iconography of his scandal. It helps to have a working familiarity with evangelical Christianity and its precepts. Ted Kennedy, for example, clung to the notion that his confession, and any penance he did to atone for his sins, were private matters, as confession is in the Roman Catholic faith. Many observers in the press and public complained that Kennedy never gave a satisfactory account of the Chappaquiddick incident, an accident in which a young girl riding in Kennedy's car was drowned. By this they don't mean that Kennedy withheld some fact about the case; rather, according to Bauer, what they missed was a true admission of moral responsibility and guilt. Perhaps Kennedy's confessor assured him that because he had no intention of sinning, he was not guilty of sin (true according to Catholic doctrine), but the public still worried about exactly how culpable he was. What the people really wanted, Bauer believes, is for Kennedy to accept blame openly, in which case they might well have been willing to forgive him. Kennedy, however, kept the world out of his personal reckoning of the incident.

Kennedy also made several symbolic gaffes. His public statement about the accident was filmed against a background of leatherbound lawbooks, and he referred several times to his family, including, regrettably, their annual participation in the Edgartown Sailing Regatta. He appeared to be surrounded by lawyers (rather than clergymen) when dealing with the aftermath of the accident. All this contributed to the image of a man who relied on wealth and family connections to shield him from the consequences of his actions.

Bauer regards Clinton's handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a textbook case in defusing such crises. Initially, he did react badly, with exactly the sort of denials, evasions and stonewalling that, in Bauer's eyes, characterize the worst possible response. Then, seven months after the story broke, he abruptly changed strategy. He "pulled out every repentant stop," taping televised statements to the public and expressing great contrition and humility at a multidenominational White House prayer breakfast stocked with theologically conservative but politically sympathetic ministers. Before the assembled clergy he acknowledged, "I have sinned." One attendee later compared Clinton to King David repenting of his adulterous lust for Bathsheba, and spoke of "this man who opened his heart and acknowledged his realization of his sin." Hearing that from the mouth of an obviously pious church figure (instead of a lawyer) convinced many that Clinton's contrition was genuine. The president also announced that he would conduct his reformation under the guidance of an "accountability group," a common practice among neoevangelical men, thereby disarming many critics from the religious right.

To avoid seeming sexually predatory, Clinton carefully refrained from personally disparaging Lewinsky. Nevertheless, as Bauer points out, Clinton's allies managed to dig up past lovers and colleagues who could testify that Lewinsky talked constantly about sex and had set her cap for the president even before she got to the White House. Still, instead of attempting to paint himself as the victim of a scheming woman -- often the first impulse of a man in his position -- Clinton was able to point to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the forces behind him as the real persecutors of both Lewinsky and himself. Even the president's notorious verbal equivocations about the affair were excused by many members of the public, who saw him trying to escape self-incrimination in the context of a legal witch hunt.

Bauer insists that although the public mostly didn't want to see Clinton prosecuted or impeached for the wrongs he committed, it still demanded that he be called to account in other ways. Here, she makes an important distinction between legal confession and what she calls "Augustinian" confession. Augustinian confession, the kind practiced with "almost picture-perfect" skill by Haggard as well as Clinton, involves one part of the man indicted by the other, the weak and sinning aspect of his personality reprimanded and shamed by the portion of him that belongs to God. It's a vision of Christian moral struggle that originates with St. Augustine and his "Confessions," and Bauer writes that it is "so widely valued because it demonstrates a certain idealized view of the human self: the self as freely deciding, free in will, and essentially independent from the surrounding legal system." In a legal confession, on the other hand, the individual is compelled to incriminate himself in the face of an overwhelming outside power, the state. In such cases, the public's sympathies often lean toward the individual, especially when those people are already mistrustful of centralized power, like many Southern white evangelicals.

No wonder Clinton made many among the religious right so apoplectic! He co-opted their Southern-fried piety with the prayer breakfast and accountability group. He skillfully deployed the rhetoric of evangelical confession, having grown up with it as a Baptist. He pulled their anti-big-government carpet out from under them by casting their legal attack dog and the architects of the impeachment trial as vengeful, self-serving wielders of federal authority. His supporters were even (and Bauer doesn't make enough of this point) able to cast Lewinsky -- and by extension Clinton himself -- as the victim of a decadent Beverly Hills lifestyle that left her a child of divorce and a desperate seeker of sexual attention from powerful men. The religious right was left to fulminate at the public's "insufficient" outrage over the whole mess. "His success in this was so extraordinary," Bauer writes in awe, "that he led his opponents into placing themselves as a moral elite sitting in judgment over the American people."

It would be a mistake, Bauer cautions, to assume as some have that the failure of Clinton's impeachment represented "an example of the public upholding the division of private from public morality." To the contrary, Clinton's triumph was the result of "a leader successfully demonstrating his own humility and equality with the electorate by admitting to and apologizing for his moral errors." And the theater of such admissions must be expertly staged. When Carter confessed to the occasional extramarital desire during his 1976 presidential campaign, he made the mistake of doing so in an interview with Playboy magazine and of using a mild vulgarity, the word "screw." Carter was trying to assure Playboy's readers that he was not going to conduct a self-righteous crusade against their cherished freedoms, but when the statements went national, he was perceived by social conservatives as catering to the wrong side in the culture wars, which are seen as a manifestation of the holy war for America's soul.

Although evangelicals are only a minority of the electorate, Bauer traces the dissemination of the rites of evangelical confession to other denominations and the culture at large through radio and TV therapists and the talk show boom of the 1980s. Phil Donahue, coaxing personal revelations out of his guests and roaming the aisles with a microphone to draw reactions from audience members, resembled nothing so much as a preacher in a revival tent calling on his flock to testify. Oprah Winfrey has mastered the form by making confessions of her own weight, addiction and relationship troubles a part of the secular redemption promised by her show. Yet, mystifyingly, Bauer never mentions the ubiquity of 12-step programs as another quasi-secular manifestation of the same social trend. The American faith in the curative power of standing in front of a crowd, freely admitting your own misdeeds and weakness, surely reaches its fullest and purest flower in that context.

You can see the insistence on public confession as an intolerable invasion of privacy or as a laudable call for accountability; Bauer avoids taking any such position herself. (Despite its colorful title, "The Art of the Public Grovel" is not a polemical book.) Cardinal Law, for example, was unable to hold on to his office when he failed to satisfy demands from American Catholics that he (and by extension the church itself) publicly repent of his involvement in covering up sexual abuse perpetrated by priests. Bauer sees the rebellion of the lay community over this controversy as an example of the "Protestantization" of American Catholics. The expectation that church leaders humble themselves by admitting their trespasses before their congregations runs radically counter to the history and practice of the Catholic hierarchy. "Power within the Catholic Church," Bauer observes dryly of the Vatican's astonishment over such demands, "had never been located in the pews."

If even a cardinal can't get away with swathing himself in the force field of his rank, certainly no elected official can hope to, either. "Scandal-marked politicians," Bauer writes, "cannot preserve a dignified silence; they must prove, through humble confession, that they are willing to acknowledge the power of the voters at whose pleasure they serve." (And if planning to make just such a confession, they could do a lot worse than study this book.) What are missing, of course, are voters capable of marshaling that power to better effect, a public who insists on not just symbolic accountability for the sins of sexual transgression, but meaningful accountability for the graver sin of abusing the people's trust. The possibility that Americans will ever call themselves to account for their sins of omission in this department seems remote. I'd bet on the Second Coming arriving before that happens.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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