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Original sin and American politics

ASK THIS | October 18, 2006

Professor of religious studies Ira Chernus examines the Foley scandal, hypocrisy, and how being a lowly sinner can be a winning strategy.

By Ira Chernus

Q. Are Republicans who preach but don’t practice “family values” hypocrites?

Q. How can they justify their sinful behavior?

Q. Just what do Republicans mean when they talk about taking personal responsibility for their actions?

Q. Why does a scandal like the one involving former Rep. Mark Foley affect U.S. politics so greatly, when other nations often take such scandals in stride?

Are they hypocrites? Not necessarily. It depends largely on their religious beliefs. If they are Christians (which most are), no matter how heinous their deeds, they can invoke the doctrine of original sin.

Few Christians will ever claim to be free of sinful impulses, even if they say they’ve been “born again” and “washed in the blood of the lamb.” According to most versions of Christian theology, that does not mean they are free of sin. It does not mean that they are righteous and pure in God’s eyes.

Indeed, most Christian theologies will say that no one is ever righteous in God’s eyes. To be saved means only that their sins have been forgiven — that they are, as the great theologian Paul Tillich put it, “accepted [by God] despite the fact that they are unacceptable.” Therefore, when their secret sins are uncovered, they can say, in effect, “What did you expect? I’m just a lowly sinner, no better than you.”

Indeed, many public figures have used this approach to advance their careers – most notably, today, President Bush. Bush had no need to deny the “indiscretions” of his life, in middle age as well as in youth. He could gain more political advantage by admitting that he is (as he often says) merely a lowly sinner.

From an evangelical Christian standpoint, the crucial question is not, “Have you ceased sinning?” It is: “Have you confessed that you are a sinner, unable to stop sinning except through the grace of Jesus Christ.” The key theological point is that no one can stop sinning on their own. The only way to have a chance to stop sinning is to accept that fact, to be “born again,” which means being open to God’s grace given through Jesus Christ. After that, every sin – as long as it is confessed repentantly – becomes further proof that the theology is the only valid truth about life. So public figures can reap advantage from a process of sin and atonement (as long as it isn’t repeated too often).

All this may sound like mere rationalization to non-Christians or to political liberals. But to conservative Christians it makes perfect sense. And whatever one thinks of its implications, it does have a consistent internal logic.

It’s also worth noting that the notion of “personal responsibility” among conservative Christians has a limited scope. It’s all about one’s personal behavior in the social arena. More specifically, it means self-control and restraining personal desires, especially carnal desires. In that sense, Mark Foley has not been a “responsible” person.

But as conservatives like Bush use the term, it has nothing to do with political, economic, international, or national security affairs. So Bush can think of himself as someone who “takes responsibility,” yet deny responsibility for the failures on Iraq, pre-9/11 intelligence, and any other misfortunes that happen during his administration. Similarly, from this particular point of view, Dennis Hastert need not worry about charges that he was “irresponsible” in not acting on the complaints about Foley. That was a matter of political judgment, not personal self-control, so it falls in a different category. Of course, if he’s pressed hard enough, Hastert can always fall back on the claim that he, like Foley and everyone else, is only a poor sinner.

Personal scandals like the Foley scandal figure into the politics of many democracies. But observers abroad often remark that they seem to impact American politics with unusual and inexplicable power. The impeachment of Bill Clinton, for obviously consensual behavior with an adult, left many foreigners scratching their heads in bemusement.

These foreigners may not understand the continuing power of Protestant religion and morality even in the secular political life of this nation. It’s not easy to understand; even the experts still debate about it. But it seems safe to say that the Puritan strain in our culture is still a potent factor. It gets more complicated if we recall that the early Puritans believed in predestination. Everyone was supposed to act morally, so that the community could live up to its covenant with God. But no one could know whom God would save.

In the 19th century, that belief gave way to a new theology that said people choose whether or not they will be saved by their beliefs and, some added, their behavior. This made the fate of the community, even the national community, depend on individuals making the right religious choices. Yet from the Puritan heritage there was a lingering sense that humans cannot save themselves.

Hence our confusion around personal morality. We don’t expect our leaders to be more than humble sinners. Yet, however contradictory it may seem, we do expect them to live up to the highest moral standards, lest God condemn us. It’s no wonder others have a hard time understanding us. On this issue, we probably don’t very well understand ourselves. 

Scandals For Profit
Posted by R C - Ra Conteur
11/02/2006, 02:57 PM

What is left out of the discussion with regard to religion and lowly sinners is the profit motive. Or as the gumshoes of western culture tell us: "Follow the Money." The money leads to the high alters of great industry - media, organized religion and politics. Were the media not so convinced that scandal sells headlines, we might be more circumspect about our lowly sinners. If organized religion could not coax the lowly sinner into their sanctums with promises of salvation - the lowly sinner would find few open arms. And if the exploits of lowly sinners did not put politics on the fastrack to change - they too would gain little attention.

In these more transparent times it is healthy to examine just who it is that seeks to lock the origin of sin to the ankles of humanity. In doing so what is there to gain? And where, if the trail is found, does the money lead us?

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