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?
When Southern politicians use religious language to confess their marital infidelity, they are tapping into one of the Bible Belt’s best known stories–the story of David and Bathsheba.
Disinterested in governing, King David either seduced or raped Bathsheba, resulting in her pregnancy, his attempts at a cover-up and his eventual assassination of her husband, a military leader. When the prophet Nathan confronted the king with a parable about a rich man who misused his power against a poor man, David thundered that the rich man deserved to die and must repay fourfold for his misdeed.
Nathan said, “You are the man.”
David soon answered, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Bill Clinton, John Edwards, David Vitter and Mark Sanford all followed a pattern as old as the Bible itself, confessing their sin. That, in and of itself, is a good thing.
How the public hears their confessions may depend more on the hearer’s political loyalty than theological convictions. Bible-believing Republicans are likely to hear the confessions of Clinton and Edwards as pandering; Bible-believing Democrats are just as likely to think Vitter and Sanford have uttered false penitence. Such reactions say more about the power of politics than the redemptive value in the confession of sin.
One overlooked truth in the David story is that those with political power never escape problems arising from their abuse of power.
David did not. He retained his crown. Yet his reign was marred by grotesque family dysfunction–rape and murder among his children–and tumultuous challenges to his leadership. Even after his death, one son killed another son, hardly the fairy-tell ending that some attach to the theology of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a biblical mandate. Forgetting isn’t.
People of faith are called to forgive and to be discerning, two practices necessitated by the serpentine nature of politicians, who hope the public forgives and soon forgets.