Weinergate: Repentance, forgiveness and contrition

So we’re at the confession stage of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal. For those who haven’t been following along, I’ll try to give a quick recap.

About a week and a half ago, a tweet went out from Rep. Weiner’s Twitter account announcing what time he’d be recording the Rachel Maddow show. It included a hashtag with a note about what time that would be for folks in Seattle. Several hours later, a tweet went from the account to a lovely young Seattle college student. It was a picture of man’s crotch, to put it mildly, and it was immediately deleted. He claimed he’d been hacked.

Then the story kept changing. He suggested that various people were victimizing him. For several days he gave weird interviews that confused the issue. A few days ago we looked at how CNN anchor Jessica Yellin argued that Weiner couldn’t be described as a hypocrite because he hadn’t been a social conservative crusader. That resulted in some interesting conversation about why the media talks so much about hypocrisy as opposed to other moral issues and how it defines hypocrisy.

Well, as you may have heard, the story changed dramatically yesterday morning. Turned out there were more pictures. And, uh, they weren’t good. Much more incriminating evidence came out, including emails and chats and phone call records. Rep. Weiner announced a press conference for 4 PM. I’ll skip over the part about how the press conference was hijacked by the guy who broke the story about Weiner’s pervy internet habit and just note that Weiner gave a long and awkward press conference that included taking “full responsibility” for his actions and apologizing to some of the people he lied about or misled.

Let’s put aside some of the political angles to all of this and look at how the media covered the repentance, contrition, forgiveness angles of the story. How well were these explained or analyzed?

As it happens, I’m on spotty wifi while at a journalism conference at Bryn Mawr this week, but it looks like most stories are focused on the political angle and simply getting the complicated facts of the scandal out. That is to be understood.

I would like to point out that, according to the actual definition of a hypocrite — someone giving false pretenses about beliefs — we see that Yellin’s claim was wrong. The link goes to the video above and even for someone like me, with a particularly cynical take on politicians, the last minute or two of the video are shocking.

And you can read what Weiner said in his opening statement to his press conference here:

I’d like to take this time to clear up some of the questions that have been raised over the past 10 days or so, and take full responsibility for my actions.

At the outset, I’d like to make it clear that I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I’m deeply sorry.

I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media.

These things are up to interpretation, of course, but Weiner didn’t use any addiction excuses or psychobabble to get out of his predicament. He just said, repeatedly, that he was wrong and felt bad.

He didn’t resign. And I have no particular view on whether he should or shouldn’t. Having said that, if he had resigned, I would have understood that to be an act of taking responsibility for his actions.

I was curious how he planned to demonstrate contrition to all of the people wounded by his various indiscretions. If I were at the press conference, I wouldn’t have asked any questions about the handling of contrition with regard to his spouse, the most wounded victim. That seems to me to be too private an issue. But I would have wanted to find out what taking responsibility and demonstrating contrition mean to him when it came to the people he lied about. I might even ask him what belief systems were guiding him as he made this confession.

Again, I get that this story is crazy enough in its own right that it’s difficult to just get the facts of the day out there. But the ethical issues here extend beyond the ethics investigation that Rep. Nancy Pelosi just announced she’d launched against Weiner. This is a moral drama and particularly in light of the fact that Rep. Weiner is staying in office, I might like to see more stories include some helpful commentary from moral theologians or others. It might be nice to see some of them discuss how to analyze the Weiner’s apology and the response it’s received.

I should also note this sympathetic profile of Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin that ran in the New York Times. It included brief items about religion:

Mr. Weiner and Ms. Abedin have seemed an unlikely couple from the start. They come from very different backgrounds — he is a Jewish man from Brooklyn, she a Michigan-born Muslim-American raised in Saudi Arabia by an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. And Mr. Weiner and Ms. Abedin have very different personalities. …

But they complement each other well, said friends of the couple, who described Mr. Weiner as a sweet, supportive partner. Ms. Abedin, a practicing Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic, does not drink, and Mr. Weiner has given up alcohol in solidarity with her, they said. He sometimes fasts with her during Ramadan, and often meets her at the airport when she returns from long trips, even in the early morning hours.

It’s a start.

And over at NPR, Linda Holmes has a really interesting analysis of what “taking full responsibility” means when uttered by politicians.

Do let us know if you see any other particularly good or interesting takes on the religious and ethics angles to this sad story.

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  • Bill

    One of the problems is that in a system of politics and legalism, “taking full responsibility” may preclude any forgiveness on earth. Going to God on one’s knees may indeed bring punishment, but it’s the way back. In politics or in just about any other public career, it’s simply a way into the desert. For someone whose political instincts point him to damage control and attacking his opponents, true contrition would seem suicidal. And if the most important thing is political survival, taking full responsibility means bargaining for probation before judgment.

    Think of the hard time many reporters had covering Charles Colson. If I remember correctly, Colson refused to plead guilty to a crime he believed he was innocent of, but said he would plead guilty to a more serious charge. Many journalists (and many other people) couldn’t understand that.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “…everyone who asks me to follow them…” In my fairly brief experience of Twitter, I have not had strangers ask me to follow them, except insofar as following ME out of the blue can be considered “asking”.

    As for “taking responsibility”…. recall Reno and Clinton “took full responsibility” for Waco… and this, as National Review noted, consisted of saying “I take responsibility”, and going back to blaming the “religious fanatics”.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    It’s sad to see men so out of control.

  • Bram

    I notice that Weiner perpetuates the current trend of recasting moral lapses as intellectual mistakes. “I did a dumb thing.” “I made a stupid call.” “I made a bone-headed move,” et al. So one religion and values ghost in all these kinds of stories of purported contrition is the cultural drift from philosophical and theological grounds on which real moral repentance can even be made. Weiner and those like him seems sometimes to be operating a la Sam Harris on the assumption that there is some scientifically objective reason for not sending pictures of your crotch to college coeds who aren’t your wife — some “ought” that can be derived from an “is.”

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I’m usually not a fan of ______-gate references that get attached to just about every scandal. But Weinergate works.

  • Dale


    I prefer “Weiner cover-up”. It’s New York Post without sacrificing your dignity.

  • Martha

    Can somebody explain to me what it is about politics that makes male politicians do these kinds of things?

    If I’m correct in all of this, he sent photos of himself in a less-than-fully-clad state to some woman (or women?) and then, when it came out, tried to cover himself by saying his account was hacked? Then finally came clean and said “When I said ‘It wasn’t me’, actually, it was me”?

    Why? Why do they do this?

  • Bram


    It’s not just male politicians who do these kinds of things, or at least help enable these kinds of things. Another ghost in this story — more a values ghost than a religion ghost per se — is the status of Weiner’s wife Huma as the quote-unquote “body woman” of Hillary Clinton, another wife of a sexually-degenerate liberal politician who was caught with no pants in the company of someone besides said wife. Is this just a coincidence or is there even more to this sordid tale than has already been exposed by a Weiner being twittered for us all to see? Only The Shadow knows …

  • http://AandBCounseling.com Don Ibbitson

    As a Christian counselor, I’ve seen frequently that men, even pastors and ministry leaders, who seem to succumb to similar temptations. Men of power/influence, if unfulfilled spiritually or at least morally, are especially vulnerable to either gold, gals or glory that would seek to keep them from completing the call on their lives.