Eliot Spitzer and the use of religion in American politics

Eliot Spitzer and the use of religion in American politics July 16, 2013

Anyone writing a satire on American politics would be hard pressed to improve on the plot already oozing out of the New York City comptroller’s race.

If you haven’t been following the story, Eliot Spitzer now finds himself running against a woman who claims she formerly secured prostitutes for the former attorney general’s use. Inconvenience, thy name is Kristen Davis! Naturally, Spitzer denies Davis’ claims, but his call-girl history reasonably prompts doubts.

Shall we hold it against him? It’s very gauche to hold anything against anyone these days.

Writing on the case, Sally Quinn says redemption is easier and easier to come by for politicians like Spitzer. A public servant caught in any number of indiscretions need only give it a rest for the news cycle and then come back yammering about sin and grace, forgiveness and redemption.

This is what Spitzer has done. “I sinned,” he said. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness.”

These are, of course, religious terms clumsily draped over otherwise naked ambition. It’s easy to see this in cases like Spitzer’s, but the real question is how much religion in American politics is similarly disingenuous. How much of it is a collection of sentimental tropes and buzzwords arranged to garner votes and energize constituencies? My guess: More than we would like to think.

What passes for Christianity in Americans public life often seems like so many vaguely religious references uttered by people who are very sincere and well-meaning — and by some that most definitely are not. There are obviously exceptions here, but there is little that’s distinctly Christian or demanding of those who make the profession. We just want our politicians to be somewhat devout — particulars are immaterial — and they are happy to oblige.

As we all know, there’s no faith test for public office in this country. And it commonly shows whenever politicians speak about faith.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    Mark Sanford anyone? Spitzer cheated on his wife. Sandford cheated on his wife AND used public funds to do it. He completely betrayed the public’s trust as a public servant. And afterwards was found breaking into his ex wife’s house, and still got elected by predominantly conservative evangelicals because “God forgives.” More like “God forgives those I like and doesn’t forgive those I don’t like.”

    • Joel J. Miller

      Quinn mentions both Sanford and Anthony Weiner in her story. It’s also worth reading this story in the New Republic, “The End of the Career-Ending Sex Scandal.” But what’s missing from the NR story is what you point out about the Sanford rebirth — the religious context that enabled it.

  • Susan_G1

    Couldn’t agree more with the above. and below. The man who was “hiking the Appalachian Trail”… it is a real mystery to me why he was elected to office, even in he did run a hard campaign in a republican district against Colbert Busch. So disappointed. But as you’ve so aptly stated, “It’s very gauche to hold anything against anyone these days.” Even adultery, lying, thievery and violated a court order to stay off an ex’s property means nothing anymore. He’s creepy in so many ways.

  • Kevin Payne

    You would forgive the person who stole money from the church collection plate, but you wouldn’t make them church treasurer lest they be unable to resist temptation a second time. But today they would scream about how unforgiving you are….
    Forgiveness doesn’t mean I have to accept your bad behavior, nor does it mean I have to give you a position of authority where you could possibly fail of your (assumed) willingness not to sin anymore.