A recent campaign ad for Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, is titled “Grace.”
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is “a preacher who doesn’t tell the truth. He doesn’t even believe in redemption,” Walker says about his opponent in the clip. “I’m Herschel Walker, saved by grace, and I approve this message.”
The messaging, leaning on Christian language around forgiveness, is part of Walker’s campaign among Christian conservatives in Georgia. And it came two days after the former NFL and UGA football star dismissed a Daily Beast report that he urged a then-girlfriend to get an abortion after he impregnated her in 2009.
It’s a neat trick: I didn’t do it, Walker’s overall messaging says, but if I did it, you should forgive me if you believe in God’s redemption. You should give me grace.
He insists the receipt from the abortion clinic, the bank image of his signed personal check, and the signed “get well” card she presented as evidence “haven’t shown anything.” He brushes off the New York Times report in which the same woman alleged he pushed her to get a second abortion in 2011 and, after she refused, became a distant father, rarely present in the life of their now 10-year-old-son. He’s sworn to sue the Beast for defamation over its “flat-out lie.”
Maybe Walker is telling the truth, in which case I hope his suit succeeds (even though, full disclosure, I regularly write for The Daily Beast). To be falsely subjected to an accusation like this in the national press would be a great wrong.
But unlike some other years-old accusations of candidate wrongdoing to which the Walker allegations have been compared, this case has a paper trail. It’s not just his word against hers. Walker’s early conduct—claiming he didn’t know the woman though they share a son—doesn’t lend his denials credibility, nor does his established record of mistreatment of his other children and their mothers.
Politician brazenly lies and conceals his past misdeeds is a dog-bites-man kind of story, so absent more context, this might not be particularly interesting for those of us outside Georgia.
But there’s the question of the evangelical vote: Will pro-life Georgia Republicans, many of whom consider themselves evangelicals, stick with a candidate who claims he’s “always” been pro-life with “no exception” (except for his own unwanted child)?
Polling on this race, as well as other reporting, suggests the answer is mostly “yes.” Among those voters and their critics alike, the decision has been widely framed in a grotesquely distorted narrative of Christian forgiveness. The way many of Walker’s evangelical supporters have defended their decision has opened them to accusations of hypocrisy and perversion of redemption as a tool of convenience—that is, accusations of what we would call “cheap grace.”
Many have simply accepted Walker’s denial. But others, perhaps not quite convinced, apparently had ears to hear the redemption plea. Walker had not confessed, yet they seemed eager to offer grace, which also happens to be the path toward a GOP Senate majority.
The abortion allegation changed “not a damn thing,” even “if The Daily Beast story is true,” declared right-wing pundit Dana Loesch, because Warnock is pro-choice and “winning is a virtue.”
“Herschel’s story is one of redemption and hope,” said Ralph Reed, a Georgia resident and chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, in an interview dismissing the abortion report. Walker represents “the power of grace, redemption, and the opportunity America still provides,” echoed Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in an endorsement made after the abortion allegation came out.
“Herschel Walker is a man who, when he gave his life to Jesus Christ … became a sinner saved by grace,” argued the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody on his podcast. “He admits he was never a Boy Scout. But when you truly give your life to Jesus Christ, he forgives you of your past. It’s washed away, covered under the blood, as they say, despite members of the liberal media who clearly can’t grasp that concept.”
But read the “liberal media” closely on this, and it’s evident they not only grasp the concept, but they see the precise piece this rhetoric leaves out: repentance.
Walker is benefiting from political evangelicalism’s “tolerance for candidates who, whatever their personal failings or flaws, advance its power and cause,” summarized a New York Times report. He’s “wielded his Christianity as an ultimate defense, at once denying the abortion allegations are true while also pointing to the mercy and forgiveness in Jesus as a divine backstop.”
Even the hosts of The View pinpointed the problem: “Why isn’t he coming forward and saying, ‘I did this, and I’m sorry’?” one asked. “I think there’s room for redemption with anyone,” responded another, “but you have to admit fault.”
That’s the rub. Had Walker confessed and repented—preferably before reporting forced him to address the issue—pro-life voters could have ushered him to the fold without losing a whit of integrity. Even in the complicating muck of politics, repentance and redemption are always welcome and good.
Instead, we seem to have a partisan version of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called “cheap grace”:
the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
It is forgiveness “thrown away at cut prices,” as Bonhoeffer puts it, sought in the same breath as denial of wrongdoing, which amounts to denial of any need for grace at all.
The issue at hand is much bigger than this or any single race. A transactional approach to politics, one which prioritizes ends over means and accepts grave moral compromise as the price of power, is already highly questionable for Christians. It amounts to a refusal to pluck out the eye that tempts you (Matt. 5:29) because it has espied the crown.
But as bad as that kind of transactionalism is, to practice it with cheap grace and label it as redemption is much worse. If Herschel Walker, or any would-be leader of any political party, confesses his sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive those sins and purify him from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9).
But if he doesn’t confess, our skipping past repentance to public absolution is a lie (1 Jn. 1:10), and a lie told so the election can still be won. This is power politics, not true grace, and it is an insult to the gospel to pretend otherwise.