Sanford’s mission from God

mark-sanford1When elected officials promote BS about politics or world affairs or the state of the economy, it’s a reporters responsibility to let readers know. (Not saying it happens often enough, but that is the expectation.) But what about when a pol says something religious that doesn’t pass the smell rest?

You get straight-faced reports like this coverage of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s battle to keep his job following his sordid spring:

Mr. Sanford vowed not to quit despite growing pressure from South Carolina lawmakers and Republican Party officials to resign or face impeachment. He said he intends to complete his term, not to hold on to power but to fight for conservative principles of governance.

“I feel absolutely committed to the cause, to what God wanted me to do with my life,” he said in an interview. “I have got this blessing of being engaged in a fight for liberty, which is constantly being threatened.”

That’s from the Washington Times. Also this week, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sanford’s self-styling as “zen-like.”

I’d like to knock the reporters for not calling Sanford on delivering religious cliches and using God as his scandal-survival wingman. But instead I have to commend them. They did their job and left judgments to be made by readers or resigned for God.

At least in this case Sanford didn’t pull an A-Rod and blame God. But coverage of Sanford’s saga hints at one of the toughest things about religion reporting. It’s also one of the elements I enjoyed the most: You’re writing about the personal beliefs that shape society. And as I said recently, it’s really hard to take at face-value anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth.

The trouble is that when a politician says a new government program would cost $20 million when it would really cost $70 million, a reporter can identify the disparity while still maintaining the neutral tone expected of newspaper journalism. But when they say that they’re on a mission from God to serve in government, despite disappearing to have a fling in South America, then it’s tough for a newspaper reporter to say an individual, in this case Sanford, doesn’t really believe that.

Reporters can, however, through the way stories are structured, remind readers to look at both a politician’s rhetoric and their deeds.

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  • Dave

    Reporters can, however, through the way stories are structured, remind readers to look at both a politician’s rhetoric and their deeds.

    Do a Mollie for us, Brad. Edit the paragraph to show us how you would have written it.

  • Dale


    I don’t know if the problem could be solved with just an edit job. I do think, however, that Sanford’s claim of being “engaged in a fight for liberty” could be offset with a summary of South Carolina’s legislative agenda, current issues pending before the governor, and rules of succession in the event of a resignation. Something tells me that readers wouldn’t find much worthy of a divine calling to fight for liberty, and the writer wouldn’t have to make that evaluation for the reader.

  • Jerry

    I would think that the best way to deal with someone who makes a claim to be on a mission from God is to ask others, especially clergy and theologians for a comment.

    Or perhaps put in some historical references to others that have made that claim to put the quote into context.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    I’m with Dave that letting the quote stand is adequate to the task — res ipse loquitur, and all that.

    But I can’t get over Sanford’s remark that he is “zen-like.” Again, I don’t know that a reporter needs to needle the governor on his limited understanding of Buddhism, any more on than his limited understanding of the religion he actually professes.

    Still, maybe some theologian should write an op-ed piece, reminding people that just as not every victory (in, say, an election or a basketball game) is somehow Christ-like, neither is every moment of calm zen-like. And that people who know the difference may be get tired of having their religion turned into an easy cliche by people who don’t really care about it.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Dave, I actually think the way the Washington Times story was done was sufficient. The only thing I, as editor, might have recommended was a paragraph following that quote that mentioned why Sanford thought this was God’s calling for his life.

    But the Rev has a point about the WSJ article. To be honest, I’m not even sure Sanford knows what it means to be zen-like. And if he does, I have no idea why he finds that to be relevant to his current predicament.

  • Charles

    I think this is totally different from the comments from A-Rod and Michael Vick. They both seem to be saying that they did something wrong, and God let them get caught for their own good. It doesn’t sound like passing blame to me. They’re saying God turned them around.

    This isn’t like that. Maybe if he gets impeached, or is forced to resign, he’ll look back and say, “God took that away from me, and he did it for my own good.” Then it will be a valid comparison.

  • digby

    So is the Washington Times now part of the MSM? When did that happen? This is a paper, remember, that relies on massive subisidies from Rev. Moon just to keep the lights on.

  • Stephen A.

    When Sanford says: “I have got this blessing of being engaged in a fight for liberty, which is constantly being threatened,” I don’t hear Zen, but I hear other things.

    One wonders if he defines “liberty” more of what other would see as “libertine.” As in: Liberty to cheat on my wife.

    I also wonder if he’s implying that he was PREDESTINED to serve as Governor by God Himself. In which case, he may be having an illicit affair with Calvinism, too.

    But the two are contradictory – one can’t be morally At Liberty to do as one pleases and an admitted Totally Depraved human Calvinist.

    Further theological questions await the governor before we can know. Which paper will be brave enough to do it?