In Southern Baptist-steeped South Carolina, public repentance is a tradition. Weepy evangelists, altar calls, redemption pageants and encounter weekends are deeply rooted in the culture.
There is a joke southern towns share about having a church on every street corner. It is also a competition – several claim the informal title of “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”
In this culture, it is a time-honored ritual to answer a tearfully delivered altar call at the end of the church service. The repentant rise slowly from their seats and shuffle humbly to the front of the church – or stadium, in the case of a Billy Graham crusade – for a humiliating public cleansing, to shed their own tears and accept Jesus as their personal savior. Or to accept him again. Or to receive forgiveness, prayers and the laying on of hands after “backsliding.”
Church audiences love testimonies, sordid, public confessions of a life ill-spent before finding God. Personal testimonies featuring all the forbidden fruits – alcohol, sex, drugs, and rock and roll – allow them to vicariously partake of guilty pleasures right out in public.
In church, even, and without taking their clothes off.
Returning to the faith after some really good sinning was entertainment in these parts long before the VCR.
Decades ago, I caught a piece of a late-night, AM gospel talk radio show out of somewhere in Georgia. The host was interviewing Demond Wilson, the actor from the 1970s TV sitcom, “Sanford and Son.” After the show went into reruns, Wilson had become a minister and was on the radio to talk about his new ministry.
But the host didn’t want to hear about that. He wanted to hear about Wilson’s life as a rich Hollywood celebrity. What about the wild parties? the host wanted to know. What about the sex and the drugs?
Wilson explained that he and his wife weren’t really party people. He played tennis, he said, with some star (whose name I can’t remember). But basically, he went to work and they had largely kept to themselves.
The host kept at it. He kept pushing.
You could hear the anxiousness in his voice. He’d expected some really quality sinning, but this more was like coitus interruptus.
“But when did you really hit bottom?” he asked a couple of times. This guy hoped to hear how Wilson had found Jesus after coming to in some strangers’ bathroom after a drunken orgy, a needle still in his arm. You know, a really good testimony.
He never got it. Wilson just decided one day that he would rather give up acting and serve God. The radio host was audibly disappointed.
What has any of this got to do with Gov. Mark Sanford’s Argentine junket? Inoculation.
For conservative politicians, the testimony has morphed into “inoculation politics,” e.g., falsely accusing opponents of personal failings they themselves share. Accustom the public to your neighbors’ faults so as not to look as bad in case you are caught indulging them yourself.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” Paul wrote in Romans 3. Anybody who has ever been to a revival meeting knows that one.
Sinning. Everybody does it. But unlike a godless liberal, a good conservative who confesses his sin publicly is eligible to be welcomed back into the fold. Just one of the boys.
“Hallelujah, brother!” as Dwayne Hickman once said.
Southern-strategy Republicans learned that lesson well. Man is sinful by nature. The Mark of Cain. It's old news.
Soon enough, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada (and of the Promise Keepers) will be old news. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (of The Fellowship), too.
But unlike Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-FL) men’s room affairs, Mark Sanford's Argentine junket sounds like really good sinning. Already, fleets of tabloid photographers have arrived in Buenos Aires, hoping to give us a glimpse of just how good.
Thus, when Sanford contritely strikes out on his political redemption tour of South Carolina, pious sinners anxious to hear all the details will probably forgive him his sins. They've already been inoculated.
Published as a "letter" in the July 2009 issue of the Asheville Daily Planet.