Conservative Sins, Progressive Sins and Forgiveness

Right now Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford are trying to become Bill Clinton. Not that they are trying to become president of the United States, at least not at this time, but they are trying to overcome past sexual “indiscretions” and renew their political careers. Who can forget the big hullabaloo over the sexual mores, or lack thereof, of President Clinton? Except that we have largely forgotten about it. Clinton today is seen as a respected elderly statesman instead of a lecherous pursuer of young flesh. While part of the Clinton legacy will always include a mention of Monica Lewinsky and his sex scandals, he has largely marginalized those incidents so that now when we think of him we focus on his presidential accomplishments instead of his shortcomings as a husband.

The three men I mention above would love to be in the position Clinton is in today. They deeply desire to create a new image where their sexual infidelities, while not completely forgotten, pale in comparison to their other accomplishments. You know what? I think they have a chance to achieve this. In our society we seem to have a high level of tolerance for these types of sexual immoralities. If they have a solid political career from this point forward, then they will gain that second chance.

This brings me to Paula Dean. Our society is not so eager to forgive her of her immoralities. The best I can see for Dean is that she will maintain a certain core group of fans who will keep making her money. But generally she is always going to be linked to racist comments and seen as a racist by the general public. I cannot see the scenario by which she can get her reputation back. Can you? Has anyone been guilty of making a racist, sexist, or homophobic statement and been able to shake that statement from their reputation to the degree that President Clinton has been able to shake from his reputation the image of sexual infidelity? We like to think of ourselves as a forgiving society, but we are selective in whom we are willing to forgive, or more specifically what we are willing to forgive.

Dean can still be judged to some degree on her culinary skills. Years ago the pitcher John Rocker made a series of racist, xenophobic comments. He did not automatically lose his job. He could still get batters out and that is what matters to a MLB team. But even as he kept his job, his reputation as a racist never went away. So I am not arguing that if a person makes a racist or sexist statement that he or she will lose his/her job or be thrown in jail. But the taint of being a racist or sexist will never leave that person. If you think I am wrong then please provide the name of a person who made such a statement and recovered to the degree that President Clinton has from his mistakes.

Perhaps we should not forgive Dean or Rocker. That is a moral question I am not attempting to address right now. But as a scholar I am curious as to why certain acts of deviance can be forgiven in our society and others cannot. Note that we are not talking about illegalities as most sexual infidelities and intolerant comments are not illegal. What occurs to me is that there are progressive “sins” and there are conservative “sins.” In general sexual infidelities tend to be conservative sins. This is not to say that political and religious progressives do not care about people who cheat on their spouse or visit prostitutes, but generally political and religious conservatives show more concern about such shortcomings. Exhibitions of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia tend to be progressive sins. Once again I am not arguing that religious and political conservatives do not care about those issues, but my observation is that political and religious progressives care more about these transgressions. If I am correct about who tends to care about certain human failings, then I have some insight into why some actions are forgivable and others are not. It seems to me that conservative sins can be forgiven but progressive sins cannot be.

The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among progressives. Why might this be? Research has shown that political conservatives have higher levels of religiosity than political liberals. (This does not mean that atheist conservatives or highly religious progressives do not exist, it is just that they are not the norm within their respective political group). It is possible that forgiveness is a value they learn through their religious beliefs. Thus, if we perform activities conservatives hate, then we have more of a chance to be forgiven due to their religious beliefs. This explanation has potential, but it is not convincing to me. Quite simply, this explanation assumes that all religions emphasize forgiveness. That is an unwarranted assumption. Furthermore, this seems like a surface explanation for what seems to me to be a fundamental difference in how conservatives and progressives understand social reality.

My speculation begins at the basic worldview of conservatives and progressives. I contend that religion matters, but not because religious individuals are taught how to forgive. Since research has shown that conservatives are more religious than progressives then conservatives are more likely to envision the need for supernatural assistance. They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to fail. Forgiveness is an expected response to these failings. This is not to say that forgiveness is always provided. Often conditions placed upon individuals so that they can receive that forgiveness. However, I suspect there is a general expectation to forgive others among religious individuals since they have a religious ideology where those individuals expect to fail themselves and may one day need that forgiveness.

An alternative understanding of human nature is one born out of a more secular, humanist perspective. This perspective is based upon the idea that humans are perfectible. Human reason and ability are the keystones to a healthy society. Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent. This is not only the idea exhibited in documents such as the Humanist Manifesto, but it was an ideology I heard time and again in my interviews with atheists and read in answers to the open ended questions I gave to cultural progressive activists. Our emerging enlightened society is one that will be free of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. So individuals who exhibit these qualities are bridges to a new and better world.

This by itself does not explain the lack of a willingness to forgive progressive sins. Theoretically, we can help those who have engaged in racism, sexism or homophobia to overcome those failings and then forgive them after they have made their transition to a progressive human. But since redemption is not usually given to those who have committed those offenses we should ask why would forgiveness be denied? I speculate that when we have the vision of human perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes. This provides less empathy towards those who participate in progressive sins and thus they are not likely to gain the benefits of forgiveness. The stain of their sins can be linked to their reputation forever. With this theory, forgiveness is tied to whether we think we are likely to engage in future societal sins and thus may need that forgiveness ourselves. If conservatives believe that they are likely to “mess up” while progressives do not have such fears, then it is reasonable that conservatives will be more forgiving of those that violate norms that they hold dear than progressives.

This is speculation as I have no sociological data to back up my assertions beyond the argument of who receives forgiveness in our society. I wish I could say that this is a research direction I would be undertaking in the near future, but alas that is not the case. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to question individuals in an effort to learn why they are more tolerant of certain shortcomings as opposed to others. Whether there are religious differences in how people forgive is also a question of empirical interest. I am not certain if anyone has looked into that question. Finally, one can argue that society is better off not forgiving those who transgress certain moral boundaries. While forgiveness is an important quality for our mental health on the individual level, providing such forgiveness on the corporate level may encourage more transgressions. Exploring whether forgiveness of shortcomings encourages more problems is another fascinating direction for future research.

  • David_Block

    My problem with the illustration of Dean is that she is being punished (almost destroyed) for acts done 30 or so years ago. I guess that it is just impossible to be forgiven for certain sins.

    • f_galton

      True, and there was nothing wrong with what she did in the first place.

  • jerryzpark

    interesting post George! I tend to think of this issue more on the level of media portrayal, since we haven’t seen any polls that pick up on the perceived levels of forgiveness of these elites and celebrities. If there is a political bent in the media, then I would expect that the “forgiveness frame” will appear differently depending on the readership of that medium and the target elite individual. So I bet there’s forgiveness in conservative media for Paula Deen, and less so for Clinton. Meanwhile there’s maybe less forgiveness for Deen in liberal media and more so for Clinton.

    • georgeyancey

      Jerry. You know that I bow to no one in my contempt for the hypocrisy on the left and the right. Naturally progressives will forgive progressives much faster than conservatives do and vice versa. But I think Sanford shows that conservatives will “forgive” sexual indiscretions since it was a conservative district that sent him to Congress. So I do think there is an overarching higher willingness to forgive the conservative sins as opposed to progressive sins and this willingness transcends political ideologies, even after controls for forgiving those with the same ideology.

      • jerryzpark

        I liked Jay Egenes’ theory and I wonder if the experiment here is to see whether progressive media exonerates private sin of progressives at the same rate that conservative media exonerates private sin of conservatives. Then contrast that to public sin by a conservative and how liberal and conservative media treat that. that can really create a powerful illustration of these ideas.

        • georgeyancey

          You know Jerry. There are too many research studies I like to do and not enough life, at least on this earth, for me to do them. I would love to do something like that but there is no way I can in the foreseeable future if ever. (Sigh). I just better hope I get a graduate student with this interest who will do the work for me.

        • Jay Egenes

          I don’t think my theory explains anything that happened before about 1980, when the rise of the Religious Right (or perhaps the eventual success of Kevin Phillips’ “southern strategy”) put Reagan in the White House, or maybe 1982, when religious conservateves started taking over Republican parties in individual states. I suspect it explains more after 1987, when the demise of the Fairness Doctrine led to a change in the way media, especially talk radio, worked, creating more polarization. And it’s become progressively (no pun intended) more true. As recently as 2006, you could have argued that the Republican establishment was just using the Religious Right. Now that particular brand of conservative, the Religious Right in the guise of the Tea Party, seems to be largely in charge of the Republican Party. On that end of the spectrum, right now, the lines seem to be drawn more clearly than they are on the left.

          • jerryzpark

            That helps place some time barriers to the proposed experiment. We could look back at specific periods (1980-1987) and see whether George’s idea can be demonstrated. Repeat again for the 1990s and the contemporary period, and you’d have a very interesting examination of politically-inflected media and types of sins and noted political (or politicized) figures.

      • buddyglass23

        In Sanford’s case it may be less an example of forgiveness and more an example of wanting to have a representative who (ostensibly) shares your policy preferences that you’re willing to vote for whomever the Republican nominee is (if the alternative is voting for a Democrat). That and I wouldn’t be surprised if his Republican primary campaign was better funded than his opponents’. Which matters.

  • Jay Egenes

    I have a different or perhaps complementary theory, based on a distinction between public and private morality. The “conservative sins” you describe are basically private behavior. Who do you sleep with? What do you do in your bedroom? Etc.
    The “progressive sins” are in some way public behavior. How do you treat people, especially people different from yourself, in public? How do you conduct yourself in the public square?
    To the extent that your “sins” are private, I may be willing to vote for you based on what public policies you support and how you conduct yourself in the public square, because your private behavior may not have any bearing on whether I like your policies or the way you administer your office.
    To the extent your “sins” are public, however, I will be less willing to trust you in the public square, no matter how well you appear to comport yourself in your private life.
    I’m not sure this explains other public figures, but it certainly explains the difference between the way politicians are treated in your examples. Conservatives tend to care more about private behavior, while progressives tend to care more about public behavior.
    I’m not sure Bill Clinton has been forgiven by conservatives. Or that it matters if he is, because they never liked him anyway.
    Progressives, on the other hand, don’t really care about the private behavior, so it’s easy for them to “forgive” indiscretions for politicians whose public policy positions they like. And progressives are less likely to “forgive” those who have committed “public sins” because that public behavior says something about how someone would govern if elected.

    • georgeyancey

      Not a bad theory. I would submit that people making racist, or sexist statements can support all the progressive policies they want and still not find forgiveness. I do not have a good example of a progressive who made such statements and lost his/he reputation but I will think about that.

      • Jay Egenes

        The closest counter-example I can come up with is some celebrity (maybe Alec Baldwin?) who recently posted some tweets using homophobic slurs, and pretty much got a pass. That might still be different from racist or sexist language. It’s certainly different than if he were an elected official, when I strongly suspect there would have been an outcry.

        • georgeyancey

          Isaiah Washington may be the best example. Do not know his political leanings but he has not been heard from since his firing from Grey’s Anatomy.

    • f_galton

      Perjury isn’t private behavior.

      • Jay Egenes

        Let me try again to get at the difference I intended to draw between “public” and “private” behavior, and how that difference plays out between conservatives and liberals or progressives. Maybe avoiding a loaded word like “sins”, and instead simply talking about morality, will help. (Or maybe not.)

        Conservatives (maybe we could just say the Republican base?) tends to view morality largely in terms of private behavior. The Right is increasingly focusing on questions that have to do with sex. Who do you sleep with? Same or different gender? What if you get pregnant? What does all this mean about marriage, which is the relationship in which sex most ideally takes place? One Republican presidential candidate, if I recall correctly, actually came out against contraceptives, which have been constitutionally protected because the Supreme Court says people have a right of privacy, since sometime in the mid-60s. Sex is the one of if not the most private thing people do. And Conservatives think it’s a big deal that we should regulate. Most progressives don’t care what you do in your own bedroom or want the government involved in making decisions that have to do with sex or consequences of sex.

        The entire Clinton debacle happened in the context of sex. Whatever else he may have done or said, it wouldn’t have happened or gotten so much attention, except for sexual behavior. So I regard the Clinton scandal as being primarily about sex–and therefore private.

        Progressives (maybe we could just call them the Democratic base or the Left) view morality primarily in terms of how people get treated in public life. Does everybody have something resembling a fair shot at success, at developing into a productive member of society? Are people unfairly discriminated against based on some impermissible reason, either overtly in a particular situation, like a workplace? Are people discriminated against unfairly in some systemic and perhaps even unconscious way, like lingering effects of societal racism or sexism? Do we, as a society, feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc.? How do we treat the widow, the orphan, the alien, the least well off, the people who may not have rights or the ability to protect or defend themselves?

        In the Paula Deen example, she may be getting a bad deal if she really used the offensive word only once in her life, years ago. Similarly, Louie Giglio (spelling?) got tagged by the left for an anti-gay sermon he preached years ago. Although the use of certain words often shows how we think about those we interact with in the public square, even if we’re not interacting with them at the time, sometimes we should cut some people some slack.

        On the other hand, if I have the facts right, the whole question of what language Paula Deen used only came up in the question of a lawsuit having to do with workplace conditions–which is a public question: how does Paula Deen treat, or allow to be treated, people of color who work for her? While she seems to be getting judged by the media well before the case goes to trial, if it ever will, the question of language use came up in a context that is very much about the public square. So her behavior in question is very much public.

        I assume that, at least with politicians, but maybe not other public figures, liberals don’t forgive conservatives, and conservatives don’t forgive liberals, at least very often, because they’d never vote for them anyway–and a breach of some standard of morality justifies not voting for them.

        Mark Sanford isn’t going back to Congress because he got votes from progressive Democrats, but because Republicans were willing to forgive or ignore his “private” behavior because they liked him on policy.

        ON the other hand, a progressive is likely to think that a Democrat who commits some breach of public morality as described above isn’t really in favor of the right public policy positions–and so is unlikely to “forgive” the politician.

        I

        • f_galton

          Bill Clinton’s sex life came up in the context of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

          • Jay Egenes

            I don’t think my theory explains anything before 1980, and it becomes a better explanation over time, beginning about then. It becomes a very good predictor, I think, starting in about 2008. The Kennedy example you cite was in 1969, I think.

        • f_galton

          Was Teddy Kennedy getting drunk, crashing his car, leaving a woman to die, then using his family’s influence to escape charges public or private behavior?

        • f_galton

          Interesting comment, by the way, forgot to mention that.

    • f_galton

      How is Paula Deen’s use of the word nigger not private behavior? She said it years ago in a conversation with her husband.

    • Jerry Lynch

      The first thing that came to my mind while reading this piece is what Jay
      Egenes said: the difference between personal and societal. Also, the
      Progressive sins are mostly about hate and small-mindedness, while the
      Conservative sins are about desires and a weak-will. The Conservative sin is an
      indiscretion and the Progressive an assault. That Progressives tend to forgive
      or better overlook Conservative sins seems to recognized what is a fundamental
      understanding at least for Christians: “the spirit is willing but the
      flesh is weak.”

      Perhaps it is only being in a highly Conservative town and this is not a
      widespread trend of Christians, but here anytime Clinton’s name is mentioned so is his “heinous” sins. He appears to be hated for his sin and also is part
      of how most define progressive: morally loose.

      “The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive
      conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value
      of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among
      progressives.”
      What does it mean, if true, that Conservatives find Progressive
      sins of racism, homophobia, and other such expressions that are hurtful verbal
      attacks on others more forgivable?

      “They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete
      without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete
      without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to
      fail.”
      They are also more likely to judge all Progressives, as mentioned
      above, to be against “supernatural assistance” and in direct league
      with Satan.

      “Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a
      state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent.”
      So do Christians and other faiths, only the medium is
      different. “Be ye therefore perfect as the father in heaven is
      perfect.”

      “I speculate that when we have the vision of human
      perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that
      perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is
      also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not
      understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes.”
      Again, I see a vast difference between the implications and
      impact of these “sins” that make it unfair to compare them in seeking
      an answer on forgiveness. To my Christian values, all sin is spiritual death,
      so there is no essential difference between the two. But my bias does come out.
      Jesus called hate murder, which to me gets an unfair higher rating than
      intercourse between consenting adults.

  • f_galton

    John Rocker’s wife is black.

    • georgeyancey

      And your point is? There is no doubt he said racism, xenophobic things. Having a black wife does not change that.

      • f_galton

        Hilarious.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The first thing that came to my mind while reading this piece is what Jay
    Egenes said: the difference between personal and societal. Also, the
    Progressive sins are mostly about hate and small-mindedness, while the
    Conservative sins are about desires and a weak-will. The Conservative sin is an
    indiscretion and the Progressive an assault. That Progressives tend to forgive
    or better overlook Conservative sins seems to recognized what is a fundamental
    understanding at least for Christians: “the spirit is willing but the
    flesh is weak.”

    Perhaps it is only being in a highly Conservative town and this is not a
    widespread trend of Christians, but here anytime Clinton’s name is mentioned so is his “heinous” sins. He appears to be hated for his sin and also is part
    of how most define progressive: morally loose.

    “The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive
    conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value
    of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among
    progressives.”
    What does it mean, if true, that Conservatives find Progressive
    sins of racism, homophobia, and other such expressions that are hurtful verbal
    attacks on others more forgivable?

    “They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete
    without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete
    without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to
    fail.”
    They are also more likely to judge all Progressives, as mentioned
    above, to be against “supernatural assistance” and in direct league
    with Satan.

    “Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a
    state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent.”
    So do Christians and other faiths, only the medium is
    different. “Be ye therefore perfect as the father in heaven is
    perfect.”

    “I speculate that when we have the vision of human
    perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that
    perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is
    also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not
    understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes.”
    Again, I see a vast difference between the implications and
    impact of these “sins” that make it unfair to compare them in seeking
    an answer on forgiveness. To my Christian values, all sin is spiritual death,
    so there is no essential difference between the two. But my bias does come out.
    Jesus called hate murder, which to me gets an unfair higher rating than
    intercourse between consenting adults.

    • georgeyancey

      I agree that all sins are equal. I probably do not have as sanguine an attitude about sexual permissiveness as you seem to portray. Sanford’s actions are not just weak willed but he hurt his wife and kids. In some ways that is worse than a racist comment in the spur of the moment. That is the problem with sins is that they hurt people. But people are more willing to take the apologies of those sins that are linked to conservatives than to progressives. I find that an interesting tendency.

  • buddyglass23

    I feel like society is willing to forgive racism if it detects legitimate repentance and change on the part of the offender. The problem is that once someone is famous it’s hard to make repentance and change seem “credible” even if they are, in fact, real. Everyone assumes it’s fake. Two examples:

    Megan Phelps-Roper
    http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/westboro-baptist-daughters-leave-their-church/

    Derek Black
    http://www.splcenter.org/blog/2013/07/17/activist-son-of-key-racist-leader-renounces-white-nationalism/

    Black’s racism was arguably much worse than Deen’s. Check out the positive comments on the SLPC article describing his rejection of white nationalism.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X