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. NVHenderson

    The reason his "Confession" failed was because he was still lying when he was "confessing". Most everyone missed the most important detail out his mouth. He said sending the picture was as "a joke" and then he discovered he had posted it publically. A joke? He wanted us to believe it was the only bad picture he ever sent and it was as a joke. Now that so many other photos and women have come forward, it is obvious it wasn't as a joke. His apology was completely made by his "joke" premise. A denial that what he did was really wrong in the first place. He had intention(s). They are being exposed, and his "confession" has now been shown to be political and in denial.

    June 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  2. Ph.D. from M.I.T.

    ToniBaloney – Good to know. Thanks.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  3. Ph.D. from M.I.T.

    I suppose someone who does not believe in the scientifically demonstratable fact of evolution could possibly have some valid points about other subjects (after all – even a stopped clock is right twice a day), but somehow i think our time is better spent reading other – more fact-based – opinions. My opionion is that anyone who is calling for Rep. Weiner to resign that is not also actively calling for Senator David Vitter to resign – and did not call for John Ensign to resign – is at best a hypocrite.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  4. Ph.D. from M.I.T.

    TurnrightClyde – i wonder who is paying you to write all these obfuscating posts. While some of what you right may be true, it is irrelavant. the relevant point is that any adult, American citizen can legally send photos like Rep. Weiner sent. I suggest you try to determine the relvant facts for yourself instead of parroting what Rush or Beck have said.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  5. Ph.D. from M.I.T.

    So I am assuming you are also calling for Senator David Vitter to resign? And you also called for John Ensign to resign for the year after he admitted to shtupping the wife of his friend and campaign worker? If not, you are a huge hypocrite.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  6. Ganesh

    I do not understand why this is such a critical issue. He did not cheat the government, or accept bribes or sell out his vote for contributions to his campaign from wall street fellows. This is his personal failing. Why do I care? Why does anyone care? Will the economy be perfect if he had not posted his pic on the tweeter? Do we really need to give this issue so much airtime? If all the real issues got this much coverage, we might actually have informed decision making once in a while.

    Politicians got away with delaying or voting down the bill that provided benefits to the first responders of 9/11 but the news media thinks this is a issue worth talking about 24/7. What a pity.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  7. 2cents4free

    This fool needs to quit. Can someone please hook him up with Spitzers number. He'll show him how to change careers after a scandal. I'm a democrat and I think he needs to go because:
    a) He's a creep (not a player like Clinton). His advances were unwanted.
    b) We all know the primary job of a politician is lying but when you do get caught you need to understand that it's OVER.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Ph.D. from M.I.T.

      So then I am assuming you are also calling for Senator David Vitter to resign? And you also spent a year calling for John Ensign to resign? If not, you are a huge hypocite, and potentially a partisan hypocrite.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  8. RightturnClyde

    I find it interesting (but confusing) how liberals can forgive their own of ANY wrong doing but become outraged by any conservative utterance. So now they want to resurrect the Clinton defense that what happens in he Oval office is personal and none or our business. Well YES it is our business. These adolescent (criminal) minds make policy and affect our lives .. in a thousand ways. We DO have a right to expect that they will not commit felonies (flashing, s*x-ual har***ment, grand larceny, bribery, perjury, misprison, treason) and then call it personal affairs.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • Alyssa

      I don't think you'll find a liberal who thinks that what happens in the Oval Office is not the business of Americans. Moreover, many liberals, including myself, do indeed think that Weiner should resign, just as we would want a Republican representative to resign for the same offense.

      "We DO have a right to expect that they will not commit felonies (flashing, s*x-ual har***ment, grand larceny, bribery, perjury, misprison, treason) and then call it personal affairs."

      On that we agree, as would many liberals. Quit turning human decency into a partisan issue. Liberals feel no differently about this than conservatives do.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  9. KoolKeith


    June 9, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • C E

      Thank you for posting a great message from Ravi Zacharias.....but, please next time check your spelling. I have never seen a misspelled word in RZIM.org, therefore I must assume you, or someone else edited the video. The message stands, however, and Mr. Wiener will have to confront his sinful state....let's hope that it is on this side of Heaven

      June 12, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  10. cpmondello

    "SIN" LMAO....Conservative Christians (CCs) in the UScongress are hurting the people of America and the world. They should be eliminated...what was the words one of my favorite T-Bagging Socialist demonizing Socialist say; "Second amendment remedies". It really is a shame that there were people today's CCs would demonize by calling them; leftist, liberal, socialist, commie, tree hugging hippie, etc because they were the ones that got the Romans to stop throwing Christians into lions pits for entertainment. I guess those CCs are correct when they say those on the 'left' are evil...they did stop the Romans, and by doing that, they allowed others to use their religion to kill people; Constantine, Hitler, to name just a few.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  11. YANKO


    June 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  12. Marie Kidman


    June 9, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • KoolKeith

      The butterfly song is really one of my favorite things about this whole place. I play it every time I see it.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  13. Reality

    Weiner is a whining, lying "wiener" and should not be allowed to represent the USA taxpayers for the question will always be what else has he been lying about and what will he lie about in the future.

    June 9, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Bruce

      The "reality" is that it's not your call unless you live inside his district...the people inside his district have spoken. In recent polling, they said he should still represent them.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  14. 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 9, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Pastafarian

      No one likes a crooked Weiner.

      June 9, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Normon


      June 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  15. Pastafarian

    When will you people learn that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one true God? Open your eyes!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  16. FairGarden

    Americans' greatness is in their unique biblical stress in transparency and their courage to push it through, which the countries of longer history can't or don't or won't manifest, even among the similar Christendom. Americans have unique ability among mankind to look at themselves objectively. They should attack humanity's sensuality, not Christianity. Secular Americans are absurd in identifying their problems. Americans without Christianity have no worth. None at all.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Nonimus

      "biblical stress in transparency"
      What is biblical about transparency?

      June 9, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • FairGarden

      Nonimus, all humans are liers. When you know God cannot be deceived, you become honest for the first time. Biblical. The concept is not elsewhere.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Pastafarian

      To know truth is to know The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and no one else.

      June 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "When you know God cannot be deceived, you become honest for the first time. Biblical. The concept is not elsewhere."
      Oh you mean the supernatural thought police, like the Hindu concept of Karma, or one of the Buddhist Five Precepts without which one cannot achieve nirvana, or the 'Weighing of the heart' by Osiris in the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead'.
      I thought you were talking about human ethics like Aesop's 'The boy who cried wolf' or the laws in the Code of Hammurabi about making false claims. My bad.

      June 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Friend

      Nonimus, no, it's about knowing the true God, His nature, and living with honesty under every situation.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:30 am |
    • LinCA


      To know truth is to know Bob the Magical Blue Sock, and no one else. You will forever be the one left over sock, if you deny Him!

      June 11, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  17. FairGarden

    Everything anyone ever did will be revealed under the broad daylight at the end, so everyone can be at ease(or horror), according to the Word of God. We are all sinners. Only Jesus saves us the fallen humanity. He makes true believers in Him new creation. There are true victors in this world by Jesus alone, though battles have variations. The sins of a human cannot be redeemed by himself; it takes atonement by Jesus alone.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  18. Michael in Boston

    This is not America. A man who did nothing illegal is being caught up in a media-lynch mob. He lied, about 1 twitter post for 10 days. This is not a reasonable response or reaction in my estimation. He flirted with girls online, so what?

    June 9, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • allylloyd

      Michael I agree. People seem to forget that Adultery is a SIN and Stupidity isn't a CRIME!! What he did was just plain stupid, otherwise known as a man over the age of 40!! He has to answer to his wife, first. He needs to pray she doesn't have a BELT. Somehow I think nine months from now when their baby is born, he's going to be doing a lot of feedings at 3am.

      June 9, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Haime52

      So you give him a pass? In America we like "stupid" politicians? We should keep the bar low for ourselves and really low for our country's leaders? Evidently that is so, we gave Clinton a pass, didn't we? A person can break the most sacred vow they'll ever make, before God and family they vow to be faithful to their spouse. Then they break that vow and the American public thinks that they hold their oath of office higher than that sacred vow? Wow!

      June 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Yes, this is America.
      Is he being prosecuted? No. Is he being thrown in jail? No.
      Have his peers and consti.tuents lost faith in his character? Yes, as they should, since he went out of his way not just to lie about it, but to shift blame.

      June 9, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Michael in Boston: My sentiments exactly.

      June 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • italianwoman57

      Michael, He is a liar!! He is a sum bag, and we pay is salary!! If he worked for my company and did this, he would have been gone long ago. Nice moral, character and values people have these days. Geez!!

      June 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  19. Culture Bearer

    I am a Christian, and I don't want to hear about sin. I think Christians use confession as a "get out of jail free" card all the time. Admit; ask God for forgiveness; say you are praying; rededicate yourself to follow Christ....and the rest of us are supposed to back off because it's in God's hands. Nope, not for me.

    June 9, 2011 at 6:09 am |
  20. C Murdock

    As a non-Christian, the very LAST thing I want to hear my public officials talking about is sin. Bauer is blurring the lines of church and state and forgetting that we live in a multi-cultural society.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • allylloyd

      This has NOTHING to do with Christianity. Mr. Weiner is a JEW. Under Jewish law, he did commit a SIN–number 7 on the list. But in the USA, that sin is not a crime. If it were, the jails would be overfilled.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:01 am |
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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.