June 8th, 2011
10:19 AM ET
My Take: Why Anthony Weiner's public confession failed
Editor's Note: Susan Wise Bauer is a historian and writer whose books include The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Confession in America.
By Susan Wise Bauer, Special to CNN
It’s a familiar scene by now: The politician is caught with his pants down, even if his boxers are still up. He feints, spins, lies and ducks. And then, finally, he breaks down in tears, apologizing to us, to his wife, to his constituency and, occasionally, to his God.
The sequence is monotonously predictable, but we’re still riveted.
And with good reason. A politician’s confession uncovers a vital truth about his relationship with us, the voters who put him into office.
On a scale of one to ten, Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting doesn’t exactly top out on the sexual depravity meter. But it still reveals a willingness to use his power — the power that the voters handed over to him, to use for the public good — for his own selfish ends.
He trawled the internet as “RepWeiner,” not as “Tony.” The photos he reportedly sent to Meagan Broussard were filled with reminders of his status, most notably snapshots of the Clintons in the background.
Read: Weiner's wife a top Hillary Clinton aide
As the American public, we have the right to be upset by this, even if the behavior itself is more adolescent than depraved. When we place a politician in office, we give him authority over us. If he uses that authority for his own gain, rather than for our good, we should object.
The question is: can he hear our objections? And how will he react?
Enter the confession of sin.
Public confession is an act of humility. It is an act which lays down all power, giving it back to the people who handed it over in the first place. It is an act which admits that the politician is no better than us. In that act, Anthony Weiner failed.
Consider the words he used at the Monday press conference at which he admitted to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with several women: I have made terrible mistakes. I panicked. Hugely regrettable mistake. Inappropriate conversations. Terrible judgment.
Consider the words he did not speak: I sinned.
To understand why those unspoken words are so powerful, we have to go back to the evangelical tradition that underlies them. In the United States, public confession was first practiced in revival meetings, where 18th and 19th century preachers encouraged believers to confess to their sin in the presence of their Christian brothers and sisters.
Opinion: Weiner's lies, not tweets, did him in
This confession, meant to refresh their faith and bring them (in the words of 18th century Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards) “new, remarkable comfort,” was an admission of equality. All believers were fallen. All were forgiven by grace alone.
American evangelicalism — which moved, in the 20th century, from the sanctuary to the airwaves — has always been an intensely democratic movement. The complete equality of all mankind in the sight of God is one of its most compelling doctrines; and that egalitarianism is a doctrine which transfers seamlessly into American public life.
“All men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, and evangelicalism gives this pronouncement an authoritative theological underpinning.
When a politician is caught abusing his power, the evangelical language of sin provides him with a perfect opportunity to say, “I do not consider myself above you. I acknowledge your power over me. We stand together.”
Follow CNN's Belief Blog on Twitter
“I made a mistake” is not the language of sin. Neither is “inappropriate.” Or “regrettable.”
Weiner, of course, is not evangelical. His Jewish tradition certainly does not lay the same weight on public confession. But the evangelical ethos of public confession as proof of humility has infiltrated secular America, and calls for open confession are no longer limited to the evangelical subculture.
Compare Weiner’s words with two other politicians who survived scandal. In 2007, U.S. Senator David Vitter was accused of using the services of a Washington escort service.
He instantly confessed wrongdoing, even though he did not say he had sex with a prostitute, before the scandal hit the headlines.
“This,” he said, “was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.” (“I’m stunned that someone would be apologizing for this already,” the lawyer for the alleged “D.C. Madam” remarked.)
Both the speed and the words worked for Vitter. He won his re-election bid last year and still holds his Senate seat.
Weiner, by contrast, delayed his admission of fault for too long.
Still, some initial lying and avoidance can be overcome by the language of confession. After all, it took Bill Clinton nearly nine months to move from “I did not have sex with that woman” to “I have sinned.”
But once he arrived at the point of religious confession, he did it up right, with language like I have repented. I have done wrong. I ask that God give me a clean heart. I ask for your prayers.
Clinton drew on his evangelical background for that language, but it played to secular America with just as much power. It is humbling language, language which admits deep brokenness and fault, language which placed Clinton in the position of receiving forgiveness from others, rather than in a position of power.
Weiner did wrong. And then he lied. But what he never said was “I am a sinner.” And for that reason, his confession failed.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Wise Bauer.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
I respect his confession more for NOT invoking the word or idea of "sin." That would have immediately made it stink of phoniness and pandering, and thus would have been insulting. The Republican politicians who get caught usually have to throw that in so that it appeases their religious base and because of the hypocrisy involved since the Right so often runs on "traditional family values." I thought Weiner's confession was authentic, and I think the way he passionately fights the Right for the common man FAR outweighs the stupidity that should be resolved between his wife and himself.
Ingid – You get my vote for best comment. I could not agree more!
I think we must forgive the individual, not the politician. He is human and he erred, so even if he did not say the work 'sin', he deserves our forgiveness. But as a politician, that's another story. He should have known better, his handling of this situation leads me to believe he is uncapable of making rational and proper decisions. He acted as a spineless moron for a whole week before he told the truth, as we all know he told the truth because he knew more exposure was coming out anyway.
Have you called for Senator David Vitter to resign? Did you call for John Ensign to resign? If not, you are a huge hypocrit.
I think it is hard for any human to point the finger at another human without being hippocritical. If humans are anything, they are full of vices. I know I am. Because of this, I can forgive his transgressions on a moral level. That said, what he did was wreckless. Our leaders need to be above reproach, if for nothing else, they need to be above reproach so that they are not susceptible to blackmail. This is why he must go.
@Nominus, pingpaul, Peace2All & Frogist – I def. see your point but I think that major changes could be made to the democratic system if just one time there was a major vote that had 0 turnout. Now do I really think this would happen, no but I just see things going around in circles and simple issues taking years to solve. I think the system is good but far from perfect and instead of any changes made to better it we just end up going in circles.
Very well stated, GSA. And the first time I've ever seen anyone echo my feelings: the system will never change, can never change, as long as voters gripe about the "Ins" and then vote "new guys" into the same hopelessly corrupt system that enabled the behavior we reviled from the last ones to hold office. Circular indeed. It would take a widespread voter sit-out to spur foundational change in the system. Alas, that will never happen.
I didnt even read this yet, but its not that hard to understand why the confesion faild...duh, he lied about it at first and was so stupidly adamit about not doing it and such. Gee, i wonder why it fait. You dumb broad. why not write something that is worth while!!!
Really? You have to say "I sinned" in order for the confession to be correct? What a very lame evangelical requirement. I wouldn't care if Weiner lashed himself and said at each lash, "I sinned." Sorry, the guy lied for 10 days and finally admitted it when faced with even more reports. Using the word "sin" doesn't get you any more points in MY book.
@umm really: So you didn't bother to read the article and then criticise the author as a "dumb broad"... wow that sure gives your opinion a lot of weight there...
I suggest you read something before making a demeaning comment about an obviously educated person on the subject. Seems she has done a tremendous amount of research on a topic that has plagued our world for centuries. By the way......spell check much?
He lied.....He should have told the TRUTH from the start!
Or told a better lie.
A liar is a liar whether he is jewish or catholic. They are spawning in third world countries like india and pakistan, do not let this weed grow in the US. It spreads like a wildfire, having said that this guy needs to be stripped off his "Rep." stature. His acts are overtly weird and amazingly stupid.
Dear America. Keep 'em comin'.
You guys are the best.
Wieiner must GO! He lied, and that’s all there is to it! Not only did he lie, he tried his best to make everyone else look stupid! Oh, by the way, he did abuse his power as a Congressmen by the misuse of Congressional Funds. After all, I believe it’s us the Taxpayers that pay his cell phone bill, to which he used to post his pictures. It is what it is, he’s a wolf in sheep's clothing, preying on those he seeks out for his misdeeds. My guess is he’ll be going into rehab to try to save his marriage, I just hope his wife is smarter then the people like him!
OK seriously we throw govt officials out because they lie now? And this farcical trumped up bit about using congressional funds? I bet you never sent a personal email from desk at work, and never made a personal phone call from your company Blackberry? Really?
Is the grief he's getting really equal to what he did?
They are not sinners, they are stupid. Whay would we want a stupid person represnting and governing us?
If he did not break any laws, he should not resign. If he lied, that's why he's a politician, if you can find me 1 (one) who doesn't lie and would not resort to lying to save his ass, I will give you a piece of gum.
What a sad state of affairs we live in when we don't require, much less expect our politicians to behave. I love it when people say things like "it's his business." these kinds of things stop being their business when they ask for our votes for them to shape our public and in some cases, our private lives. It's not college sports where no matter how much your school imitates Ohio State you have to keep rooting for them. The consequences are much more important. I get the whole human frailty business but it's high time to stop the nonsense. This guy not only lied, he actively set out to keep lieing. Right now i wouldn't want to shake his hand much less let him plan my tax code.
To address the religion point...... "REAP WHAT YOU SOW."
How did it fail? Because he lied to try to hide it? It clearly did not fail. There is NO apology for email pics of your junk to women. It's a clear overt act. Her mom failed.
Whose Mom failed? I don't get your comment.
No, it's because he is the definition of weasel, playing face morality to the point of shooting others down, and sneaking around to do what he WANTED to do. Do you really believe for one iota of a second if he didn't accidentally post that photograph and it went where it was supposed to he wouldn't have carried on his behavior and eventually met up with one of these women......
If not vote Weiner 2012 and be sure to wear the campaign t-shirt.
The other problem is many in this position think, "everyone does this, I can just apologize and move on"! Well, you can't just move on with a clear conscience, because the consequences can run deep. There is a ripple effect, the mistrust of family and coworkers. Losing your career, the source of income that keeps the family afloat. The disgrace is not limited to "sinner", but children and spouse, showing your face in public takes on a new dimension for all. I could go on, as the fallout is lengthy, this is damaging behavior that cannot be undone.
The fallout you describe is only due to this being a high profile politician. This same thing happens ALL THE TIME to regular family's and never has this kind of extreme fallout. I can't think of a single person I know who hasn't done something stupid with their camera phone. Normal people have affairs ALL THE TIME, not that it makes it right, but this is not new and should not be news.
Wiener's problems are manifold. It would have been one thing to come clean immediately. But after spending the week lying repeatedly and making what you knew were false accusations, it's pretty unreaonable to expect instant forgiveness. Also, by being adamant about not resigning, he more or less said that he did it, it was wrong, but he won't even consider accepting certain consequences that many consider just. That just isn't going to impress very many people, including many who would otherwise be inclined to cutting him at least some slack.
I forgive him.
I'll eat him last.
One error here. Not everyone falls for the religious bit. To me, dragging God into it just sounds like a different way of weaseling out of taking responsibility. And I may forgive, but I still think that adolescent nitwits should not hold office..
Hear Hear... As we Brits would say!!
I agree completely. The author made good sense until she got to the 'sin' part. That is not why his confession failed, and when these exact words came out of Jimmy Swaggart's mouth, I wanted to throw up. Just lying through his teeth. Besides, if you don't really believe you've "sinned" why mention that?
I can't go along with Bauer. The term "sin" has religious connotations which alien to me and perhaps to other people. I think Weiner acted stupidly, given his public office, but I would not use the term "sin" to describe what he did. He may also have abused his power, as Bauer argues. But "sin"? Not everybody is comfortable with that word.
Correct. Weiner's confession failed, but so did this article. I would have been creeped out if the word 'sin' was used.