Politics

02.17.13

Mark Sanford’s Forgiveness Tour After His Affair Could Land Him in Congress

He strayed with his soulmate and now wants back into politics. Michelle Cottle on how the ex-governor is seeking absolution.

God has forgiven Mark Sanford, and so should you.

Mark Sanford
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gestures as he admits to having an affair during a news conference June 24, 2009, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

This is the sermon the fallen governor of South Carolina is now preaching to former constituents as he launches his official repentance/comeback tour—this time running for the House—after an involuntary two-year hiatus from politics.

It is no small measure of grace that Sanford seeks. The governor did not merely cheat on his wife. (Heck, many voters have come to expect nothing less.) In a telenovela-worthy drama in June 2009, he mysteriously abandoned his post for several days for an Argentine rendezvous with his girlfriend; when his absence was reported, he directed his staff to lie and say he was hiking the Appalachian Trail; then, after getting cold busted by a reporter at the Atlanta airport, he turned himself and his state into a laughingstock by blathering on publicly and endlessly about how he was so very, very sorry, but he just could help himself, because he’d found his soulmate and was madly in love.

Recognizing the fix he was in, Sanford was ready with the God card from day one. He promptly invited the public to wallow in his sin, repeatedly lamenting his “fall from grace,” reassuring us all that he was praying on it, and, ballsiest of all, comparing his adultery to King David’s as a justification for why, despite calls for his resignation, he felt compelled to stay put and fulfill his duty. (Talk about your tidy bits of exegesis.)

We were denied a truly delightful soap opera when Jenny Sanford, who dumped him while she was first lady, declined to run for the same seat. But 3 1/2 years on, Sanford believes he has served his time in the doghouse and has moved on to the redeemed-sinner part of this show.

“I’m not in any way unaware of my well-chronicled failings as a human being,” he assured a gathering of South Carolina Republicans last week, in his first public campaign speech, “but I am equally aware that God forgives people who are imperfect.”

Sanford’s approach is hardly original. The whole God-forgives-me-so-why-won’t-you pitch is a favorite of fallen pols, especially those hailing from the Bible Belt. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter used it to great effect when his fondness for hookers was revealed in 2007. Prepping for his presidential run, former speaker Newt Gingrich assured us that he had received God’s forgiveness for catting around and kicking two wives to the curb for younger, hotter models—one of whom was on the House payroll. And just this December, in the spirit of advent, Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee informed a local radio host that he too had been washed clean of having had an affair with a patient, knocking her up, and pressuring her to get an abortion.

Sanford believes he has served his time in the doghouse and has moved on to the redeemed-sinner part of this show.

Sanford, however, is taking his biblical pleading a step beyond. He is now testifying that not only have his sins been forgiven, but that those transgressions and the spiritual journey they compelled are actually political selling points.

As he explained to Politico, “I probably have more to offer now as a human being than at any point of my life because there’s an added level of reflection, of empathy ... In other words, whether it’s through circumstance or one’s own choices, really at a gut level understanding where one’s coming from is not really possible unless there’s some personal experience of misfortune.”

Got all that? Having disgraced himself before God and country makes Mark Sanford better qualified to serve in Congress because he will henceforth be humbler, more compassionate, more reflective, more empathetic.

This is, actually, a very Christian notion. I cannot count the number of times growing up that I sat through a revival meeting or Sunday service as someone shared how they had been brought closer to God, and subsequently became more understanding of their fellow man, because of some grave sin (usually involving sex or drugs) for which they had sought forgiveness. I mean, who better understands the value of God’s grace than one who has sorely put it to the test? And what political leader wouldn’t be a better person stripped of a little pride and self-righteousness?

Except ... while these guys love to talk the talk, few wind up visibly walking the walk. Take Gingrich. When you think of his presidential candidacy, what is the first word that pops to mind? I’ll tell you a few that don’t: humility, empathy, self-reflection. Whatever divine forgiveness Newt experienced in no way dimmed the speaker’s glittering arrogance and snarky self-righteousness. (Just ask John King.) As for Vitter, while his confession kept him in office, it hasn’t exactly transformed him into a paragon of Christian grace and charity. It certainly didn’t stop him for slamming Republican colleague Marco Rubio last month as “nuts” on immigration.

Maybe Sanford will be different. Maybe he really has experienced some sort of personal transformation that will lead him to become the Chuck Colson of the House. I do suspect that, far from flat-out misleading voters, the governor desperately wants to believe the best of himself in this regard. And that’s always been the essence of faith, right? Believing in something despite the lack of tangible proof. Sanford is now fiercely praying that he can get enough South Carolinians to take that leap with him.