Mark Sanford's Apology: Neither Sin nor Forgiveness Has any Party Affiliations

By Jim Wallis 7-02-2009

Over the course of the 2008 election season, I kept hearing from some of my conservative religious friends of the great presidential hopes they had for a smart and ambitious governor from South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Pressures are now mounting for the governor to resign in wake of his admission to improper liaisons with an Argentinean woman, and it looks like those political hopes might be shelved.

Why does it happen? This most recent scandal is not the first and will not be the last. It was not so long ago that John Edwards was a national figure for the Democrats when the news of his infidelity removed him from the public stage. This story has played out time and time again through the ages; promising figures in power ruining their careers, setting back their work, and inflicting great pain on themselves and their families.

II Samuel tells the story of King David who saw Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his palace. He ordered her to come to his chambers, slept with her, and got her pregnant. To cover what he had done, he sent her husband, Uriah, into a battle where the fighting would be most fierce and then commanded one of his generals to pull back all the other men to ensure that Uriah would be killed. David then took Bathsheba as his wife.

King David, Governor Sanford, Senator Edwards, all men of faith, committed sins in what they thought was private, but eventually, their sins found them out. When I hear stories of men in power committing these kinds of transgressions, I suspect it is never out of the strength of their faith that they commit these acts. Rather, each one had to carve out a space in their lives in which they were able to forget about God -- a place that their faith could not enter. They created in their minds and their hearts a framework in which they could justify their actions, because others do it too, because they "deserved" the right to do these things, because they are passionate people and allowed their passions to have free reign -- all by ignoring the values, and the faith, which dictate the rest of their lives.

This, I believe, is often why we hear a religious theme in their apologies. Scriptures say David cried out, "I have sinned against the LORD." Bill Clinton said, "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned." John Edwards: "Two years ago I made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else. In 2006, I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness." David Vitter: "This is a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession." And now, Mark Sanford: "There are moral absolutes and God's law is there to protect you from yourself. And there are consequences if you breach that."

There was a moment, I am sure, when what had been done in private and in secrecy, in that space in which God had been forgotten, that God returned. With that return, the justifications collapsed and the deep and surely painful recognition of sin as sin came in. I am in no position to know whether Sanford's or any of these men's apologies are sincere, and their actions all come with consequences as the story of David teaches us. But, I do know that, for people of faith, neither sin nor forgiveness has any party affiliations.

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