Public Confessions: Good Enough?
And despite all the cries about our declining morals, these same twin impulses continue today in the campaigns of the religious right and in social justice movements on the left: "Do the right thing," play fair, and all will prosper.
We don't always agree what the right thing is. But there are some things that as a culture we're pretty sure about: cheating, lying, unfaithfulness, and taking an unfair advantage are all things that violate our social contract in some way.
Because we're Americans, though, our moral underpinnings are complicated by our pragmatism. Americans love fairness and good deeds, and they also love what works. So we hold up Jefferson (who preached equality but kept his slaves and slept with at least one of them), and Franklin (who was a womanizer and a terrible father) as ideals. In more recent times, we balance our distaste for immorality and unfairness with our love of success. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, but he presided over a great period of economic prosperity. Lance Armstrong cheated in the Tour de France, but, some rationalize, he had to in order to defeat all the others who were doping. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire broke some of baseball's most sacred records while using steroids—but as a Tweet quoted in SI last week argued, they were a part of the most exciting period of baseball's history, and, that writer argued, they should be in the Hall of Fame.
And so, because Americans are easily-offended pragmatists, we substitute pop culture confession for religious confession. It's easier than real responsibility and amendment of life. We accept the confessions that are proffered, such as they are, and in most cases (one exception: do not cheat on your saintly cancer-suffering wife!), after a period of time, we are almost always willing to let the sinners rejoin our community.
This public confession and restoration does have a religious root: theologians from all traditions believe that when we wrong others, that sin alienates us from God, from those we have harmed, and from ourselves, and so a first part of making amends and restoring those communions is always admitting our wrongdoing. Most wisdom traditions would go further to suggest, though, that there must be genuine remorse, and that if the sin is ongoing, the offender should intend to amend his or her life and not continue in that offense.
But we don't require more than simulated sincerity from most of our public confessions, which are simply a pop culture ritual that simulates but does not replicate religious confession. This public confession and contrition on the set of Oprah, David Letterman, Larry King, and Leno has replaced the past ceremonies in which popes and bishops ruled on kings and nobility and gave them public penance before they would be readmitted into the good graces of the church. Many of the public apologies we witness do not rise to the level of actually expressing their sorrow at anything other than having been found out or having lost their rapport with fans and supporters.
But all the same, we offer forgiveness.
How did Lance Armstrong (or insert today's scandal here) hurt me?
Am I supposed to actually forgive him or any of the others who have publicly disgraced themselves?
Or is the ritualized public forgiveness—buying a ticket to Mel Gibson's movie, not changing the channel when the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis plays to the cameras, treating Bill Clinton as an elder statesman instead of a serial adulterer—sufficient?
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.