‘I have sinned’: Philandering politicians look toward the heavens when they confess

Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R) recent affairs had several differences: Ensign was involved with an employee and longtime friend, while Sanford flew 8,000 miles to Argentina for his relationship.

But the two men have something in common — they are proud, vocal Christians.

When Sanford admitted to his extramarital affair, he invoked his faith in explaining his state of mind.

“I guess where I’m trying to go with this is that there are moral absolutes and that God’s law indeed is there to protect you from yourself, and there are consequences if you breach that,” he said. “This press conference is a consequence.”

Ensign didn’t make any religious references in his confessional press conference, but his affiliation with Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s organization that asks members to commit to “practicing … sexual purity,” became a prominent storyline in the aftermath.

These two are the latest in a long line of political men of faith who have broken their wedding vows. Ensign and Sanford — and before them, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and former Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) — can now try to salvage what remains of their reputations.

What of Christianity?

Many experts say the Christian faith will not suffer any long-term public-relations dips from the accumulation of religious-politician sex scandals. But the affairs disappoint the faithful, and some Christian politicians sense setbacks in their public images. Other adherents wonder why the wayward pols drag their religion into their public confessions.

“It’s tough to be fighting for principles and see other fighters yield to those principles,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said. Gohmert belongs to the Southern Baptist Church and led a charge this spring to beat back a House hate-crimes bill using a religious-freedom argument.

Other members of Congress were sympathetic to Ensign and Sanford invoking Christianity in their public confessions.

“When you make a mistake, to have the ability to repent, be forgiven, reconcile and begin anew is a very important religious principle, so you can’t separate that from any healing that needs to take place,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). Wamp is one of Ensign’s roommates in a Capitol Hill house that bunks several other lawmakers and has been the site for Bible studies for congressmen.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) saw the fallen politicians’ reliance on Christianity in their admissions as a genuine display of contrition.

“I think for those individuals to use their faith to measure themselves by, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, if they’re coming back and saying, ‘Look, here’s the standard that I believe is right in my life, and I’m acknowledging that I failed in that standard and I didn’t meet it,’ ” said Forbes, who founded the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

Other observers are more suspicious of the confessing members’ motives in bringing up their religion.

“When these individuals get caught in these situations, they realize that their names are going to get dragged in the mud,” said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University in Sanford’s home state. “I think it’s become a standard reaction: ‘I have to man up and admit it and … immediately somehow symbolically promise that I’ll be a better person.’ Invoking religion goes toward that.”

Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Michigan’s Calvin College, recognized that Ensign and Sanford are politicians, after all.

“If there is political motivation, and there may be, then [bringing up religion] may be [them] trying to make amends with their political base,” he said.

Ensign and Sanford could make appeals of all kinds in order to restore their reputations. What seems to be more resilient, Smidt said, is how the public will continue to view Christianity in the wake of these scandals.

Public opinion polls show that Americans have negative views of evangelical Christianity at a rate higher than most other religions to begin with, Smidt said, adding that these scandals “certainly don’t help” but won’t likely weigh any more heavily than other aggravating factors.

The true fallout, he said, is within the religion.

“Evangelicals have historically gone through sort of a cyclical involvement in politics,” he said, explaining that instances like these affairs may cause Christian voters to pull back on their investment in political figures to represent their beliefs.

“From the inside, I think it’s more a disappointment type of thing,” he said. “Here’s someone who is supposedly a role model. It’s a position of public trust, and they have failed in that regard.”

The public holds politicians to a higher standard, Smidt said, and officials accept that standard when they choose to run for office.

Olson wondered if that standard is too high.

“I don’t want to condone affairs or anything like that, but people are people, and things are going to happen that people didn’t intend to have happen,” she said. To run for office, she said, “either you have to honestly be pure as the driven snow, or you have to be adept at covering these things up.”