Mark Sanford’s Shallow Spiritualism

Mark Sanford is the former governor of South Carolina who infamously disappeared for several days in 2009 to visit his Argentine lover in Buenos Aires; his befuddled staffers were left to proffer a number of excuses for his sudden absence, most memorably that he’d spontaneously decided to “hike the Appalachian trail.”

Mark Sanford

At the time, Sanford was in the early stages of planning a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and would likely have stood a decent chance of besting Mitt Romney. The GOP’s Southern powerbrokers were without an obvious candidate to coalesce around, and it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Sanford filled that void. Any such hopes were dashed, however, when Sanford convened a tearful press conference upon his eventual return to South Carolina and revealed that he had “spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina” visiting his lover and “trying to get [his] heart right.”

Sanford was widely ridiculed; his wife filed for divorce, he was censured by the state legislature, and after leaving office, he retreated to his family’s plantation where he went into seclusion. An unschooled observer of American politics might have assumed that his prospects for future elected office had been irrevocably dimmed.

But he’s back, naturally, and is seen as the leading contender in a special election to be held later this month to fill a vacant U.S. House seat. A New York magazine piece from last week chronicled Sanford’s rebirth, highlighting his newfound penchant for mixing New Age-y, self-help preachifying with an espousal of the typical “Small Government” conservative agenda.

The New York journalist observed that at one campaign event, Sanford framed his answers to voters’ questions around his own past woes:

“Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,” Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.

At first blush, this seems a laudable admission on Sanford’s part; most anyone, politician or otherwise, would do well to have a healthy dose of empathy for fellow humans, and this trait is especially desirable for those who wield political power. But then came this revelation:

When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy — whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary — he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.

So after years of turmoil and an intensive personal “journey,” Sanford’s main insight is that political elites who experience public shame warrant his empathy. His political “convictions,” however, remain quite unchanged. Yet, as the old axiom goes, “the personal is political,” and Sanford’s crisis appears to have merely reinforced the values he already held to be true — that the privileged class deserves copious deference for their failings, while the underclass hardly even merit consideration.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Mark Sanford asked ex-wife Jenny Sanford to run his latest campaign

    And you thought your relationship with your ex was complicated: New York magazine reports that while former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his ex-wife Jenny have barely spoken since their bitter divorce three years, he recently asked her to run his congressional campaign. “I could pay you this time,” the magazine reports he told her. …

  • C Peterson

    Hmmm… Sanford was visiting his lover in Buenos Aires. The new pope is from Buenos Aires. Coincidence? I think not.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    “But by the grace of God go I” is a problematic quote in many ways.

    1) The “but” implies that is a situation that does NOT apply to the speaker of the quote, whereas in this instance (a politician with a notorious sex scandal makes it into the newspapers) it is exactly what applies to this person.

    2) it implies that God is giving some special preferential treatment to whoever is saying this quote, but not giving such care to those were suffering.

    For example, every year almost 1-million babies suffer and die from malaria, while I live a healthy life in affluence. If I say “There but for the grace of God go I”, it implies that God’s grace is responsible for my affluence (but God withholding his grace from the babies is also also responsible for millions of them suffering/dying).

    Conclusion: If this God exists, he is an absolute jerk!

  • busterggi

    If we all cheated on our spouses, lied about our whereabouts and were hypocritical about our jobs and faith just think how much better our country would be.

  • Randomfactor

    Hence his appeal to someone like Sanford, made in the image and likeness of an “absolute jerk.”

  • Marco Conti

    What a prince…

  • Kailoa Pulupēikemele

    “Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s
    self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of
    empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,”
    Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did
    before in part because of some pain in my own life.”

    Another thing the journalist missed here: What Sanford is describing here is not empathy, which needs no similar situation is one’s own life, but rather, sympathy, which does.

  • Don_Gwinn

    Wow. That’s . . . . stunning?

  • Barefoot Bree

    The headline on this post should have read “Sanford’s False ‘Empathy’”, not his “Shallow Spiritualism”.

  • Tom LeGrand

    None of this is stunning to someone who lives in South Carolina…and more embarrassingly, he graduated from my alma mater. Smdh.

    People have criticized me for my unwillingness to “forgive” Sanford, as a pastor towards someone who claims to be a Christian. I can forgive Sanford in a generic sense, but I cannot do so to the point that I would want him to be in the public trust once again. His arrogance, self-centeredness, and lack of self-awareness of it is just deplorable to me.

    Not to get into a massive discussion on this, but I sometimes think it’s our responsibility to forgive and NOT forget.

  • BushCheney2012

    If Jenny Sanford hadn’t let herself go… Then Gov Sanford would not have had to “outsource” their martial relations to Argentina! She’s a typical lazy “entitled” US worker!

    Besides, Sanford respects our Tea Party Patriot values. He doesn’t waste our hard earned tax dollars on trips to Argentina to “hook up” with some ho!

    Question to my fellow Tea Party Patriots – If Sanford’s mistress gets preggers, is it an anchor baby????