In a public forum, the key to a good confession is showing that you're willing to be accountable to those who put you in office, says author Susan Wise Bauer.
So when President Barack Obama went on television last week and told the world "I screwed up" in his nomination of several key cabinet members, including Tom Daschle (who failed to pay $128,000 in taxes), just how redemptive of a confession was it?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in how the public responded to his mistake. Immediately after his appearance on NBC News, several of my Facebook acquaintances in their 30s remarked how they loved having a President who wasn't afraid to admit his shortcomings with such relevant, vulnerable language. "How refreshing!" more than one posted.
On the other hand, my father, who was taught growing up that there are only two things in life you can't avoid — death and taxes — was generally agitated by the entire scenario. He shook his head in frustration that three people Obama had wanted for key positions all failed to pay their taxes in varying degrees. But even he thought Obama's apology was at least a step in the right direction. "He admitted he was wrong — you've got to give him that much," he told me over dinner.
The fact that we all spent just as much time talking about the President's willingness to admit he screwed up as we did pondering the actual mistakes he made meant it was a successful confession, says Bauer, author of The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton University Press, 2008).
I asked Bauer how evangelicalism has influenced our culture's desire for public confession, and what she thought of Obama's admission.1