The recent reaction to SC Governor Mark Sanford’s Argentine affair has been very interesting, and very saddening. I have followed the unfolding drama more closely than I would normally follow such a thing, because Sanford was for a few years my governor, before I came out to Idaho, and I have respected him more than almost any politician (though that’s not saying that much)—he has been an outspoken Christian, an unflinching conservative, and has refused to compromise on any of his principles while in office, which is a very rare thing. Or so it seemed. His recent disappearance to Argentina and subsequent messy, stumbling unbosoming of the whole sordid affair have made national news…perhaps a bit too much national news, for that matter. The media has been barely able to disguise their glee that an outspoken Christian conservative was up to his neck in deception and hypocrisy. And to be sure, Christian conservatives should not go out of their way to defend the man, or to try to prop up the image of a fallen hero—he was a hypocrite, a liar, an idiot…no doubt about it.
But the response to this affair has revealed some rather unsavory realities about American society:
first, we are a terribly judgmental people, and second, we prefer politics to truth. In America today, it seems that we have three possible attitudes—either we lionize people, unaware that they have faults (e.g. Obama), or we despise and detest them because they have revealed their faults, or else we maintain a cynical detachment toward all…figuring they’re all scumbags, so who cares? There is no place for recognizing their faults and forgiving them. From what I’ve read in the media, and from the American public (in the form of letters to the editor and such), everyone despises him as a lying hypocritical scum who should be clubbed to political death. Now, that’s precisely what he was a week and a half ago, but now, he’s a broken, shamed man, who knows it, who hates his errors and is trying to get them off his chest and make a clean start, at least so far as I can tell. The articles I’ve read have not seemed really to challenge that he is genuinely repentant, but that doesn’t really seem to be relevant…no one’s interested in forgiving him. I have found that, for all the complaints in the broader culture that Christianity is so judgmental, that the broader culture is far more judgmental, far more unwilling to forgive—because of course you have to know yourself as forgiven in order to forgive.
I was particularly struck by a letter to a Washington Post columnist who’d written about his wife’s response—the letter was outraged at Sanford’s confession that he was going to try to make things right and was trying to fall back in love with his wife. “TRYING to fall back in love with his wife? I can’t believe he’d have the gall to say such a thing! If I were his wife, I would divorce him right away.” The columnist, who appeared to be a mature and intelligent woman, agreed enthusiastically. Why such anger? It would be more grounds for divorce if he tried to pretend that all this time he’d really been properly in love with his wife, and now all he had to do was brush the affair under the rug and be a good husband again. To admit as he did that he was trying to fall back in love with his life was a genuine and rending admission that he hadn’t just made some silly mistake, but had totally screwed up his relationship with his wife, and had been doing it for a very long time. And it was the statement of a determination to undertake the very difficult project of reversing that process.
This leads to the second point—we prefer politics to truth. Many articles I read lamented or mocked his terribly mismanaged confession...conflicting versions of what happened, gradually getting worse, tearful laments about how hard this was to give up, how much this woman had meant to him, throwing out unnecessary confessions of all the other little infidelities he had indulged in over the years. What terrible politics! Doesn’t he understand how to keep up an image? Just make a clean breast of this affair, don’t add unnecessary emotional details, don’t tell us more about other sins that we didn’t know about, tell us you know you were wrong, resign from what you need to, and start projecting a positive image. This was the gist of these articles’ suggestions. But again, the articles did not seem to challenge the genuineness of the emotions and regrets he was expressing—he may be telling the truth, trying to clean out his conscience, etc., but that’s not what we want. We want something that is neat, tidy, and preserves as much political face as possible. We actually prefer the glib apologies and prepackaged expressions of regret of someone like Clinton, which reduce their sins to mere misdemeanors, to the rending, piece-by-dirty-piece confessions of Sanford, which bear all the trademarks of a genuine human being, struggling with genuine sin that has held him captive for years, and that he is struggling to throw off.
This is not, of course, meant to suggest that Sanford should not be pressured to resign, that his political career should not be ruined, etc. Perhaps he should resign, and his political career should be ruined. King David faced terrible temporal consequences of his adultery, but that did not change the fact that he was a forgiven man, a man who loved God and whom God loved.
It is also quite possible that additional facts of the case that I don’t know or that have not yet emerged will prove wrong my assessment of Sanford’s genuineness—but the main points, about what this affair has said about our culture, still stand.