Mark Sanford receives God’s grace and the public’s, too


Maria Belen Chapur and her fiancee, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford pose for a picture in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013, after Sanford won the GOP nomination for the U.S. House seat he once held. Sanford is trying to make a comeback after his political career was derailed four years ago when he disappeared from the state only to return to admit the couple was having an affair. Sanford's wife, Jenny, later divorced him. (Bruce Smith/AP)

Mark Sanford’s primary run-off victory brings him yet another step closer to professional redemption. His is now only one general election away from returning to elected office as a congressman from South Carolina -- the job he had prior to holding, and then resigning, the state’s governorship in the wake of a messy marital affair.

Sanford attributed his recent victory to God’s grace, and he was certainly at least half right.

Admitting that he used to cringe when people thanked God for electoral victory, that is precisely what Sanford did when he won the GOP congressional primary race. Why the change of heart?

As is so often the case, words and deeds that confuse or offend us when experienced from “the outside” suddenly make great sense when understood in the context of our own personal experience. That’s actually a useful perspective for both those who invoke God in political settings, and those who cringe when others do so.

The appropriateness of invoking God, as Sanford did, is always a function of two distinct issues -- how it feels for the one doing the invoking, and how it feels to those hearing the invocation. Typically though, only the former is considered.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most people seem to imagine that whatever works for them, should, necessarily, work for all others also. In fact, both those who invoke God, and those who cringe at such mentions, would do well to practice a bit more modesty when it comes to their respective conclusions.

Nobody can know for certain about the existence or non-existence of God, and so much the more so when it comes to assessing God’s role in the unfolding of human events. That’s why they call it faith. That said, Sanford’s claim will certainly ring true for many people, and both he, and they, may be onto something.

The idea that redemption, both personal and professional, is possible speaks to an American public that has demonstrated time an again, a willingness to grant second chances when we are convinced that the individual in question is truly sorry, has dealt responsibly with the the results of their misdeeds, and is not likely to repeat their past offense. That is especially true when the misdeeds are fundamentally personal in nature, are not egregiously hypocritical, and have not harmed anyone who is especially vulnerable.

Had Mark Sanford abused his office beyond the state-funded tryst, made a name for himself as particularly strict on sexual matters, or done physical harm to his then wife or kids, the public would likely not be so forgiving. Instead, Sanford was caught doing something that almost all people have either done, or know someone who has done.

That doesn’t make marital infidelity acceptable -- far from it. It simply brings it into the range of understandable and forgivable despite remaining unacceptable. Sounds like grace to me.

So whether Mark Sanford’s victory can be attributed to divine grace, I can’t say. It can however, be attributed to what might be called -- borrowing a term from Robert Putnam’s most recent work -- American grace, which is at least as important, and something that can be appreciated whatever one thinks about God.

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