Lance Armstrong’s confession: An American ritual

George Burns AP In this Jan. 14 photo, cyclist Lance Armstrong listens to a question from Oprah Winfrey during taping … Continued

George Burns


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.


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.

    When a person lies under oath, what does that tell you?

  • citizen625

    How about we get the USADA’s Travis Tygart under oath to see what Republicans got him to go after Armstrong? Athletes, like lovers, always lie.

  • citizen625

    If Roger Clemons and Barry Bonds had not had judicial review of their cases, like USADA, they would never go to the Hall of Fame. Travis Tygart is a Republican Tool to defame anyone remotely Democrat. His career is made by bringing down Armstrong. And Armstrong lit the fuse.

  • jophibow

    I had no idea that Lance Armstrong’s indiscetion had anything to do with political affiliation.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.