My Take: Why Anthony Weiner's public confession failed
Rep. Anthony Weiner at a a Monday press conference at which he revealed having 'inappropriate' online relationships.
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.”

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“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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Opinion • Politics

soundoff (221 Responses)
  1. Freethinksman

    I heard his speech. I thought it was predictable and thorough. Whether or not he keeps his seat in the next election is a different discussion, but I never once considered whether he would or should admit to sinning. My understanding of sin is that it is a grievance done to a god. Why should anyone care whether he feels remorse toward an imaginary friend? As far as I'm concerned, there's only so much contrition to be handed out. All of that contrition is owed to the people who were hurt by his acts. Religion is so 19th century. We know better. And that means we ought to behave better.

    June 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  2. Reality

    Best Weiner Joke Contest: Winner gets a free grill with a year's supply of "weiners": Add yours to the list below.

    To date: not ranked yet:

    "I guess this is what happens when Bill Clinton presides at your wedding." -Sara Benincasa

    "Remember when the only people who saw a politician's pe-nis were ho-okers and interns?" -Jason Mustian

    "Maybe Weiner and his wife have an open ge-nital-tweeting marriage." -Mileskahn

    "It was just a photo of his "junior senator".-Bucky Ball

    June 8, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  3. RightturnClyde

    Well if you are an average ordinary citizen and you go down to the park in a trench coat and flash any woman (any age) you are looking at 10 years in prison. But if you are a congress person you can do it one Tweeter, you can punch our the capitol police, bounce (and kite) checks, mess withe the employees, omit pertinent facts from testimony, abscond papers from the archives, ride various planes for free .. have a different health care plan, different retirement plan, different tax liability. in a ratio of 300:300 million that makes them an elite oligarchy. Now the same people can ridicule Trump, Palin and Beck with a straight face.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  4. RightturnClyde

    I do not think this post will clear censors. Even the most innocuous are held pending.

    June 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Reality

      The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there are words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".

      • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.

      Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments.

      Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".

      And said moderators still have not solved the chronological placement of comments once the number of comments gets above about 100. They recently have taken to dividing the comments in batches of 50 or so, for some strange reason. Maybe they did this to solve the chronology problem only to make comment reviews beyond the tedious.
      Zeb’s alphabetical listing

      o “bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN "awaiting moderation" filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in Car-se, etc.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, lubco-ck, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-ntthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sh-@t.....but shat is okay – don't use the @ symbol there.
      sp-ic.....as in disp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.
      Allowed words / not blocked at all:
      raping (ra-pe is not ok)
      shat (sh-@t is not ok)

      The CNN / WordPress filter also filters your EMAIL address and NAME as well – so you might want to check those.

      June 8, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  5. kdog

    This article is just ridiculous, and you're a terrible writer. I can't believe you got paid to write this gibberish.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Casual Observer

      kdog well stated and the "author" certainly has exhibited the qualifications to be an editor of any junior high school newspaper.
      A little research on the author and one does have to wonder how she is given any forum for her distorted right wing Christian propaganda. Her writing skills and logic thread would hold any 7th grader spell bound for several minutes.
      It is probably easy to write "history" when you don't have to include any facts and can fill in the gaps with your revisionist philosophy.
      But this is America and one is allowed their opinion – no matter how wrong it is.

      June 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Vanilla Gorilla

      please – someone explain to me how this woman got her position with CNN. The rest of the Clown College at CNN must have had the day off.
      It seems t he good folks of NY are not concerned that one of "theirs" has betrayed their trust. That alone is problematic as we are sending people to Washington to make decisions that will impact our nation for generations that have no moral compass.
      Weiner is another example of what is wrong with the majority of the politicians in DC – he should not resign – the other members of the House should force him out. Now. I

      June 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  6. ToniBaloney

    What hogwash. Ms. Bauer is a fundamentalist Christian whose only claim to fame is having written a few homeschooling books from a "Christian" point of view. She teaches creationism and the members of her homeschooling forum are the same. If you sign on and so much as bring up evolution, you're first soundly insulted by all her "Christian" base, and then you're summarily banned.

    Her credentials as a "historian" consist of a three part book on world history written for Christian children. The books aren't particularly good–everything is viewed through an ultra-religionist prism. I have absolutely no idea what CNN was thinking when they gave this woman a forum.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  7. Anne

    Wow, Susan...you're really reaching...the reason his confession failed is because he only came clean after he lied and lied and lied - and continued to do so, until he realized there was no wriggling out of it. Whether what he did was a sin or not, the fact that he did not own up to his acts of weirdness and stupidity is the true reason his 'fessing up failed.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  8. Midwest Dave

    The reason that Rep. Weiner's confession failed is that he lied again during the confession! There are several obvious issues related to whether this will be judged to be an ethics violation: a) did he use govt facilities and equipment, b) were the girls under age. He lied about (a) by saying "no" when we've seen photos of him in his congressional office. He was equivocal about (b), so it seems prudent to assume one of the girls IS under 18. Cry-baby confessions followed by more lies before the tears dry leave me laughing at the fool and hoping for more pressure from the media.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Midwest Dave: Are you out of your mind? You're accusing someone of se-xually approaching underage girls with no evidence whatsoever? When has flirtiing with women ever equated se-xual assault of under-aged children? Really?
      As for the using govt facilities, I'm thinking you never used your company's facilities for any personal purposes ever, right? That's a frivolous charge and a cheap shot because they haven't got anything to nail him on.

      June 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  9. Jill

    What a load of hogwash, Ms. Bauer. Just because *you* think it would have made a more powerful apology in *your* eyes for him to have evoked *religion* in his admission and apology, doesn't mean it's a requirement for it not to have "failed." His confession of *sin* is between him and his Rabbi. Frankly, I don't want to hear it, as it's none of my business. So long as he simply asks forgiveness, that's *enough*, including in Judaism.

    "For transgressions against G-d, the Day of Atonement atones. But for transgressions from one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another."

    trans·gres·sion (trns-grshn, trnz-) n.
    1. A violation of a law, command, or duty: "The same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman" (Elizabeth Cady Stanton). See Synonyms at breach.
    2. The exceeding of due bounds or limits.

    Gee, not a word in there about confessing "sins". Get off your religious high horse, you nutjob.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Tom

      That was Susan Wise Bauer reporting for the FoxChannel – thank you Ms. Wise Bauer for that bit of insightful journalism, our world is better for it. And now on to our next story why Global warming is a hoax – but first a message from our sponsor "Fruit of the Loom" . . .

      June 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  10. Marie Kidman


    June 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  11. cecilia

    it would be refreshing to see your Senator or Congressman on TV and not think of private parts.
    I think it is time for women to rise up and take over – no more wars, we will take care of business like homeless and seniors- and for the most part we will not go down in shame

    June 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  12. Burbank

    That is so ridiculous. It doesn't depend on calling it a sin, many people are totally turned off by religious references and they certainly don't belong in politics.

    What has done him in is that he has demonstrated that he is a totally untrustworthy person! He was cheating on his wife both before and after he married her, his vows of faithfulness meant absolutely nothing to him. If he treats someone intimately close to him in this way, how will he treat us, the taxpayers who voted him into office?

    We are nothing but "ratings" to someone like that – why on earth would he respect and honor us enough to be honest? That's what did him in!

    June 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  13. Andy

    Ridiculous. He took complete responsibility for his inexcusable behavior. Your premise is absurd.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  14. Trin

    This article is very misleading – it should be listed as a side-note in the Belief Blog. It has very little bearing on the actual story – as it is a religious-oriented piece. The Anthony Weiner case is not something that involves religion – it involves a married man having internet/phone dalliances with other women. Don't interject your own religiosity into what SHOULD BE A FACTUAL STORY.

    June 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  15. Adam

    NO this is not about religion. He failed because he spent 5 days vehemently denying it and getting hostile, arrogantly thinking the public and media would fall for it.

    His sleaziness shined, thats why he failed. I dont give a rat's a.s.s if he said sin or "i f.cked up"

    June 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  16. edward

    While many in our country continually merge our nation's secular personality with its religious personality, many do not. I don't, hence, I disagree that Rep. Weiner's confession failed. It failed only for those who fail to accept the fact that all of us are sinners to one degree or another, and to those who fail to successfully separate human personal failings from human public abilities and achievements. I may be the most flawed person I know, yet I like to believe that others may still accept me when my abilities and achievements are beneficial. It's called "repentance," "forgiveness," and "getting back on the horse" after a fall. All of us fallen. All of us will fall again. All of us need the courage to stand back up and dust ourselves off. All of us need to help each other through those tough times.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Tony Justin

      I am getting the feeling that if news reporters had to live by the same standards that they apply to politicians, they would fail miserably.

      June 8, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Ph.D. from M.I.T.

      edward – Hope my reply ends up next to your comment. In any case, in my opinion,, edwards comment is right on! Thanks.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  17. Susan NotsoWise

    No, the reason his confession failed because he was still lying during the confession, he didn't send the picture as part of a joke – your attempt at stereotyping and generalizing is way off and I'm an atheist you moron – religion has zero to do with it.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Tony Justin

      This is still a scandal because the Congressman has a funny name and the photo he sent was really humiliating. People love it when others are humiliated, because it makes them feel better about themselves.

      June 8, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Tony: You're spot on, Tony.

      June 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  18. Ken Besig, Israel

    Mr. Weiner has made himself into a sad travesty of a man, and I am deeply disappointed in him as a Jew.
    Mr. Weiner knew that the was lying and misleading throughout this whole sordid affair, just as much as he knew he was committing sinful and immoral acts with the contacts he, as a married man, was having with these women.
    Mr. Weiner, as a Jew, is required by Jewish Halacha to apologize to every person he lied to or deliberately misled and to ask their forgiveness for having sinned against them.
    Mr. Weiner's faux vidui, or false confession, does none of these things and he even tried to absolve himself of his wrongdoing by calling his acts a mistake.
    A mistake is an unwitting error, made by either accident or due to incomplete knowledge.
    Mr. Weiner's improper e-mail contacts and his lying to cover them up was deliberate and though out, and was done for immoral reasons.
    Mr. Weiner should be deeply ashamed of himself.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  19. clyde

    times are hard and getting harder, so move on and leave his wife alone. You can bet a lot of elected people are scrambling after this not to get caught, ( men and women ).it's the media that are roaming like a pack of wolfes looking for a killl.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  20. sweetfa

    While this is a very serious topic, I'm astonished that no one has taken the time to congratulate Ben for his hilarious post.

    June 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
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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.