My Sin When I Ran for Governor of South Carolina

Can morality exist without religious backing within the political sphere?

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 


Herb Silverman
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  • mbeck1

    I finally understand why I run around raping and pillaging. I don’t believe in god. What is amazing is that I’ve never been caught. I guess god is looking out for me.

  • safiyah111

    Ameen!!!!!The balanced approach is to fear Allah first AND be concerned and thoughtful about the impact the infidelity would have on one’s spouse and children. Fearing Allah and being concerned about the feelings of humans you can see is a better attitude than just thinking about the impact one’s behavior on the humans. You might ask why is it better: It is better because it is a balanced approach.

  • gladerunner

    safiyah111″ Everything in this life supports the idea of one god. Think about it.”I seriously challenge you to contemplate the notion that there is no god whatsoever and write down the issues, the things that don’t seem consistent with that notion. What is it that you think a god does for you? Is your life stress and strife free? has anyone in your family suffered and died tragically, perhaps too young? Have you ever been wronged? Have you ever gone hungry? Did any of god’s remedies come from something other than the hands of those around you? Was there ever any actual magic? Do any of the good things in your life exceed the limits of mere coincidence? What happens if you think impure thoughts, do bad things happen to you?All of this makes perfect sense in a godless world.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Awhile ago, OnFaith panelists addressed the question of the relation of religion and morality, concluding in the main, that the organized religions had nothing to offer in the way of a morality program for nations. This was the view of believers and atheists alike.A romp through history would seem to support their view.

  • potatosticks

    Mr. Silverman makes an interesting point. It seems like the politicians who are most open about their religious beliefs always seem to act the most hypocritically. Maybe the people who are most inclined to do wrong think they can cover their tracks by touting their strong faith all the time. Interestingly, once a super-religious politician does something stupid, the religious leaders quickly pretend that they have never respected said person. That’s pretty cowardly.

  • Athena4

    Actually, Safiyah, the balanced approach would be to be concerned about how much your infidelity would hurt your wife first, last, and only. Then again, I don’t expect much from a follower of a religion that treats women worse than they do their camels.I serve my (many) Gods and Goddesses out of love, not fear. And I’ve been with the same man for over 20 years.

  • Nosmanic

    It’s really annoying(for lack of a better word), as a Christian to hear this How conservative Christians seem to lack basic understanding of Jesus teachings “what you do for the lest of these you do for me”

  • Paganplace

    Sanford and his ‘penitence’ are a joke that isn’t funny anymore.

  • LorettaHaskell

    As a member of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry and one who has known Dr. Silverman through his leadership, I have to applaud his contribution to this story.I went to college with Mark Sanford and had a very casual friendship with him as he dated my college roommate for a very brief period of time. I have never been a fan of Mark’s politics and would never have seen him emerge as South Carolina’s governor. I believe that Jenny Sanford’s commitment to their marriage and belief in his possibilities had much to do with his rise to power and his status as a leader in the Republican party.I am most grateful, however, for the contributions of Dr. Silverman, who has left those of us in South Carolina who are in the liberal minority and though, often from Christian and conservative backgrounds, looking for the true moral compass with which we were instilled, that has nothing to do with the co-mingling of religious and political meanderings.I am concerned for our state in this lack of leadership and personal crisis of our Governor’s. What gives me the most hope is the leadership of private individuals, such as Dr. Silverman’s experience was, in stepping up to the plate and just being the moral human beings that we were meant to be.I have been troubled by the so-called “counseling” that the Sanfords have received from their “spiritual advisor” and the questionable interpretations of Biblical stories that Sanford has used. Why does our culture continue to tolerate a Biblical offense of bad behavior and dismiss it when people of strong moral fortitude are persecuted for speaking up against the obvious?

  • suemetzger

    Thanks again, Herb, for putting things into perspective. After many years, I still remember the incredulous freshman comment re the use of the “only human” defense in a class discussion–“I thought being human was a responsibility, not an excuse.” The same could apply to being religious. It should not be an excuse for immoral behavior. My parents were devout Christians, but didn’t talk about it a lot; they lived as if they believed it. I am not religious so must not only accept responsibility for doing the right thing, but must also, relying on reason, determine what the right thing is. Relying on religion to determine our morals is a cop-out.