In the Bible Belt, Mark Sanford's anguish opens door to forgiveness

But with personal scandal, plus his reputation for political prickliness, can he hang on to his position as South Carolina governor?

Mic Smith/AP
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford reacts to a question from the media as he leaves a family home Thursday on Sullivan's Island, S.C. The family is staying at the beach front property after the governor admitted to having an affair with a woman from Argentina.

He turned off his cellphone and disappeared without a trace. He had an affair on the taxpayer dime. He misled and betrayed his wife and family.

In the glare of his return, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford – a rising star on the national stage, bogged by political intrigue in his home state – shed tears and apologized. He also vowed to pay back the state for taxpayer-funded business trips to Argentina, where he met “Maria.”

But as the man both beloved and reviled for his stubborn independent streak faces calls of resignation from three state newspapers, Governor Sanford has indicated he intends to stay on the job. He prepared to meet his cabinet today to discuss the week’s turmoil.

Despite his personal anguish and the love-lorn letters to his paramour published this week, the door has opened among state leaders and the South Carolina public for Sanford to finish his term in office, which ends in 2011. The test, many say, will be whether Sanford can follow his confession with redemption – and become not just a better man, but a better governor.

His public contrition and private anguish may, in the end, help the governor recover, theologians say.

'Empathy for the sinner'

“One of the elements which is genuine forgiveness is empathy for the sinner,” says the Rev. Donald Shriver Jr., author of “An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics,” who has been following the story. “That doesn’t mean approval, but a kind of acknowledgment of humanity which redounds upon us who are making those judgments.”

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a fellow Republican who would become governor should the incumbent resign, said Sanford should not leave. He vowed to help the governor finish his term even though the two are not allies.

Southern Political Report columnist Hastings Wyman noted this morning that statements from many state leaders have been “surprisingly kind-hearted.”

The Palmetto Family Council, a nonprofit, Christian educational foundation, calls family “the bedrock of society … grounded in fidelity.” But it noted that Sanford “told the truth with apparent contrition … and contrition is a start.”

Were he to stay, Sanford’s journey to start over in the State House would tie heavily into the thick strands of sin and redemption that perpetuate the Bible Belt – part of the grass roots that Sanford often cites in his sparring with the powers in the legislature.

Forgive and forget?

How that community ultimately reacts will play a large role in the governor’s future, argues Robert Parham, director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, in Nashville, who cautions against easy forgiveness.

“This is really not about what Sanford should do, but how should the faith community understand and frame the issue?” says Mr. Parham. “There is within Christianity a kind of partial notion that forgiveness is easy and requires forgetfulness. Forgiveness, in fact, is difficult and does not require forgetfulness. We need to have caution about the rush to forgive.”

Sanford is known as a “my way or the highway” kind of politician who takes fiscal responsibility to the point of writing on both sides of Post-It notes. He has butted heads with the Republican-led legislature over what some see as grandstanding on issues like the federal stimulus package at a time when the state faces major fiscal problems.

Andy Brack, publisher of SC Statehouse Report and a frequent thorn in Sanford’s side, said this morning that the governor should stay.

“Look, Sanford has been a pariah who’s walked the gangplank for not taking the stimulus money, but he … stuck to his guns and did what he believed in,” says Mr. Brack. “But while he was under this tremendous amount of public pressure, little did we know that in private his hell was magnified. Does that mean he can’t now handle the pressure? No, because the pressure is off. Can he become a better governor? I certainly hope so, because we’ve got 12 percent unemployment, a [lousy] educational system, a healthcare system in crisis, and we need some leadership in this state.”

Sanford, an Episcopalian, spent part of the week sequestered with his family at their home on Sullivan’s Island. His wife, Jenny, has said she’s willing to reconcile, but has also noted that she’s able to go her own way without her high-profile husband.

As he left home this morning, Sanford was asked by a reporter whether he would leave office. He shook his head no.

Speaking to reporters after a 40-minute cabinet meeting today, the embattled Governor said, "I'm just trying to survive the day. That's what I'm trying to do."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.