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Better to Gush than Hush

Susan Wise Bauer explains why Americans expect public contrition from leaders who play around in the bedroom.
The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin & Public Confession in America
by Susan Wise Bauer
Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 2008
352 pp., $26.95

Former presidential candidate John Edwards knows how to make a confession. As the story of his 2006 affair broke, he went on ABC News to answer for his actions. He was contrite, humble, and ready to take full responsibility for his behavior. He had asked God for forgiveness and apologized to the public. Despite his misdeeds, he positioned himself with the righteous as a crusader battling the demons of narcissism. Equally important, he made clear that he had no further aspirations for power. Always the populist, he told reporter Bob Woodruff that he wasn't sure he would ever return to politics. While putting the future of his career into the hands of the people, he left the door open for a rebound.

Edwards's profession meets all of the criteria for a perfect confession, according to Susan Wise Bauer's engaging The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America. Although the Edwards scandal broke after Bauer had finished her book, it provides a fitting epilogue. Bauer is interested in the ways men and women in the national spotlight have dealt with their own sexual sins once those sins go public. She argues that over the last 150 years, the ritual of confession underwent a "massive shift."

"Americans increasingly expected their erring leaders to publicly admit to their sin and to ask for forgiveness," she explains, while leaders engaged in a "ceremonial laying down of power, made so that followers can pick that power up and hand it back." Who did they learn this from? According to Bauer, they learned it from American evangelicals. "Even as evangelicals complained about their diminishing influence in America," she writes, "the evangelical ritual of public confession assumed center stage in secular American culture."

To make these arguments, Bauer takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the most famous (and often infamous) sex scandals of the late-19th and 20th centuries. By the end of the book, readers are left with a complete scorecard of winners and losers in the ritual of public confession, along with an outline of the Bauer formula for successful groveling.

If her formula was accurate, this book would be a must-read for every minister who lusts in his heart or in a hotel room, every politician who text messages strapping young Congressional pages, and every priest who molests children or covers up another's crimes. But it is not. While there is no doubt that the ritual of public confession has evolved over time and now parallels evangelical models, there is no prescription for success. Bauer's argument required that she read evidence selectively and interpret it based on arbitrary and changing criteria. Like Bill Clinton, she had to play fast and loose with the past.

Bauer's first case study focuses on Grover Cleveland, a winner in Bauer's confession game who was elected President despite having fathered a child with a mistress. Republicans taunted the Democrat during the 1884 election with "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Nevertheless, the scandal had little impact on his career. Bauer argues that he survived for two reasons. First, he was living in an era when confession was still a private matter; second, he reassured voters that he would not take advantage of people's weaknesses, especially when entrusted with the presidency.

But Bauer ignores the even bigger sex scandal of the era, that of Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. Beecher, the most famous minister in post-Civil War America, had engaged in an affair with Tilton, a married member of his congregation. When she confessed the affair and her feminist friends publicized it, a national scandal broke. Beecher denied everything and was exonerated. He displayed no sense of humility at all, made no confessions, and suffered very little as a result.

In contrast to her silence on Beecher, Bauer does examine the life of another stonewalling minister, Pentecostal Aimee Semple McPherson. McPherson was suspected of having an affair with her radio engineer in the 1920s. Like Beecher, she denied the liaison, claiming instead that she had been kidnapped and hustled to Mexico. The key to her success, according to Bauer, was her ability to frame the scandal around the poles of good and evil. McPherson represented herself as the embodiment of purity and virtue and painted her accusers as tools of the Devil. Bauer argues that "the Court of Public Opinion … declared McPherson innocent," but Bauer is wrong. McPherson's strategy cost the evangelist her national reputation, destroyed her alliances with many leading evangelicals, and inspired novelists and filmmakers to treat her as a vamp and a charlatan. Hers is a model to avoid, not one to emulate.

From there Bauer moves into the contemporary era, deconstructing the scandals of Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Bill Clinton, and Bernard Law. Bauer paints Kennedy as a loser for failing to understand that "his insistence on privately thrashing out his moral issues, rather than publicly confessing his moral failings, stood in the way of his election" as President. But it is hard to see the eight-term senator as a failure simply because he never occupied the White House. He certainly came out of his scandal in much better shape than McPherson did hers. Bauer treats Carter as a loser in the confession game, even though he did make it into the Oval Office. Carter's admission in an interview with Playboy that "I've committed adultery in my heart many times," and use of the term screw to describe sex, damaged Carter in national polls, but did not cost him the election.

Bauer's analyses of the televangelist scandals are more convincing. Bakker never took responsibility for his actions and Swaggart initially humbled himself and submitted to church authority, but he was quick (too quick) to try to regain his position and influence, which ruined him.

The public confessions of each of these men and women set the stage for the most important modern confession of all, that of Bill Clinton. A Southern Baptist himself, he understood the rhetoric and ritual of public groveling. Although it took him three tries, he finally got the formula right. "He managed to portray himself as an American among Americans," Bauer explains, "align himself with the poor and oppressed, avoid the appearance of being a predator, and place himself on the right side of a holy war." As a result, he survived a major sex scandal and is indeed the winner in The Art of the Public Grovel.

Bauer is certainly correct that evangelical language and ritual have deeply influenced American public confessions. Yet this is not where evangelicals' greatest impact lies. That public leaders have to make confessions at all of their sexual sins is the real evidence of evangelicals' tremendous influence on the nation. The abiding tradition of evangelical piety has created an American public that in an era of secularization and globalization still expects its leaders to live up to Christlike standards. Americans want leaders who spurn requests for interviews from Playboy, stay faithful to their wives, protect (not bed) White House interns and Congressional pages, and live humble, moral lives. This is in many ways distinctively American, and it is America's evangelicals who are responsible. Without them, John Edwards may not have needed to confess anything at all.

Matthew Avery Sutton is assistant professor of history at Washington State University and the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard, 2007).

Related Elsewhere:

The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America  is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

Susan Wise Bauer also writes on her blog.

Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture also reviewed The Art of the Public Grovel.

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