Why do so many American politicians — from Bill Clinton to Mark Sanford — use religious language when they make public confessions of marital infidelity? Are they truly penitent or just pandering? How can we tell the difference?
I have no idea how truly penitent these politicians are, but I have a deep and abiding faith that they are considerably more experienced at political pandering than philandering. Since I was once a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate, I’ll concentrate on Governor Sanford’s confession — though I expect my personal response covers all.
I had never thought about running for governor of South Carolina, where I have lived and worked as a mathematics professor since 1976. But when I learned one day in 1990 that a clause in the South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, I asked an ACLU attorney how this obviously unconstitutional provision could be changed. He said it would require a valid plaintiff and that I should become one by running for governor. I did, and an expected four-week campaign lasted for eight years, first as that candidate and then as a notary public applicant. The then-governor, attorney general, and their political advisers exhausted every legal roadblock. Finally, in 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in my favor that no religious test could be required for public office (not even in South Carolina).
None of the political leaders in South Carolina, and certainly not the lawyers advising them, believed they would prevail legally if I continued to pursue my case. Yet, those same politicians showed that they would rather waste time and money on a lost cause than risk the wrath and lose the votes of the state’s well-organized religious right.
During my 1990 campaign for governor, I was probably asked about “God” more than all other candidates for all other offices combined. I had to explain to countless citizens how this candidate without a prayer could still have an ethical and moral base. They understood how people of faith could sin, and then feel remorse and ask God’s forgiveness, but they assumed that someone godless would have no reason to act morally. Also along the way, I heard from many fellow South Carolinians who thought they were the only ones with such beliefs. As a result, we decided to form a secular humanist community, which continues to thrive and grow.
One of Governor Sanford’s press conference apologies was “to people of faith across South Carolina, or for that matter, across the nation,…” Implicit in his apology, and insulting to nontheists, is that people of faith are expected to be more moral than people without faith. What seems clear to me is that politicians who continually proclaim their faith are likely to be more hypocritical than those who don’t.
Since the issue at hand is adultery, I can’t help but remember one public debate I had a few years ago with a fundamentalist minister from a South Carolina megachurch on the topic, “Can We Be Moral Without God?” In a portion where we asked each other questions, I asked him how his behavior toward people would change if he stopped believing in God. He said, “I’ve been attracted to other women, but I didn’t act on it because I knew how much it would hurt Jesus.” I responded, “I’ve also been attracted to other women, but I didn’t act on it because I knew how much it would hurt my wife Sharon.”
Along the same lines, I thought Governor Mark Sanford seemed more emotional and contrite when he apologized to his spiritual adviser “Cubby” Culbertson for letting down God and Cubby, than when he talked about how his reckless behavior would affect his wife and children. And here I thought family values were about how we treated our earthly families.
Photo courtesy of: Marshall Astor