In this Jan. 14 photo, cyclist Lance Armstrong listens to a question from Oprah Winfrey during taping for the show “Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive” in Austin, Tex. The two-part episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will air nationally Jan. 17-18.
After years of denial, Lance Armstrong admitted to using “performance enhancing-drugs” during his storied cycling career during his much-hyped interview with Oprah Winfrey, according to multiple reports published Tuesday. The interview is scheduled to air in two parts starting Thursday.
This kind of public confession has become a cultural ritual for the remorseful and famous, a necessary inflection point for a public image spiraling out of control. After denials or equivocations, the contrite one admits what he did, apologizes and promises to do better. Television ratings soar.
Tiger Woods was sorry for his “irresponsible and selfish behavior.” President Bill Clinton “did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.”A sobbing Jimmy Swaggart said, “I have sinned against you, my Lord.”
And those are but the prominent examples. In many ways, we’ve become a nation of public confessors — from tell-all memoirs to telling tweets, from Facebook updates to YouTube coming-out videos. Confession seems to be taking place everywhere these days, (except, in fact, in the confessional.)
“The path from confession as a private act to confession as a public ritual stretches from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 [which solidified confession as a Catholic sacrament] all the way to Oprah Winfrey,” writes Susan Wise Bauer in her book “The Art of the Public Grovel.”
Tracing the roots of confession from sacred Sacrament to modern PR move, Bauer writes that for post-Reformation Christian churches, conversion often included a public airing of one’s sins as a way of contrasting the private, priest-led confession of Catholicism. “As part of the conversion story, confession of sin was done publicly; the whole purpose of the conversion narrative was to testify … to the reality of the conversion.”
It is this living artifact of America’s religious history that scholars say informs our modern interest in public confessions like Armstrong’s.
“Part of the fascination with public confession derives from the deep Protestant heritage that informs much of American life,” says Joseph L. Price, professor of religious studies at Whittier College, who has written books on sports and religion. “True confession moves beyond merely admitting wrongdoing; it moves toward a fresh start. And second chances — the Protestant conversion experiences and the positive changes in life that the confessions initiate — are what Americans thrive on.”
We value this cultural coming clean, says the Rev. James Martin, SJ, “because so much of our culture is based on Christian morality, which places a value on both confession and forgiveness. Also, I think people understand at a deep level that everyone is sinful and deserves some measure of forgiveness.” (Read more from Martin about forgiving Lance Armstrong from a Christian point of view at America Magazine here.)
Armstrong himself is not religious. In his autobiography, he says, “I developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs.”
What are those beliefs? Armstrong, who wrote that he had an intense night of soul-searching the evening before his brain surgery (his testicular cancer had spread to his brain and lungs), framed his faith this way (pg 117-118):
“Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that . . . then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I’d lived a true life.”
Now, Armstrong will be measured by those words.
William Dean, a professor of theology at Iliff School of Theology, says, “It’s hard not to see Lance in biblical ways.”
“[Armstrong] had been a self-made man, single-handedly beating cancer, creating his own foundation for charity, letting us cheer as he turned perfect circles on the surfaces of summer roads. He did this, we thought, by himself, never taking advantage of his opponents. Now he must abase himself and seek a new life — and with the help of a woman [Oprah] who has been an outcast herself, but, unlike him, through no fault of her own.”
After his interview with Winfrey, Armstrong may be judged by the public for just how true his confession was. And while his public confession may be over, with a number of looming lawsuits, his trial could be just beginning.