Whenever there are politicians, a history of wrongdoing and an election you’re going to see the argument that we are “all sinners” or that the candidate is a “changed man.” Should we take these claims seriously?

Social conservative leader Gary Bauer and Princeton scholar Robert George both recognize the power of redemption is a critical part of Christian belief. Bauer told me that most evangelicals are receptive to a candidate who looks you in the eye and says he’s reformed. George recognizes the need, however, to be discerning. “Some of the greatest saints were once the worst sinners. How do we know whether a person has reformed and acquired virtues he once lacked? It’s often not easy to tell. Because politicians with scandalous conduct in their past have strong incentives to present themselves as having reformed, whether or not they actually have reformed, it is impossible simply to take their word for it.” He suggested: “We need to listen carefully and observe their conduct, looking to see whether we can detect genuine virtues — courage, constancy, self-possession, true dedication to causes larger than themselves. We need to see them operating under stress. We need to know whether they are willing and able to stand up for sound principles when it means risking their chances for electoral success.”

Bill Bennett, former Education Secretary, has written extensively on virtue and character. He makes a critical distinction. “I forgive but I don’t forget.” But depends, he says, on assessing whether the person is truly repentant. He cautions against “cheap grace,” that is, taking verbal affirmations too seriously before they are backed up by behavior.

Peter Wehner, who co-authored a book on religious faith and politics with Post columnist Michael Gerson, agrees with Bennett on the danger of “cheap grace.” He told me, “It is the trap that is hard to avoid for anyone who has stumbled and fallen. Accountability, high standards in human conduct, and moral excellence are cast aside in order to find comfort in grace. It’s theologically complicated for Christians, since grace is at the heart of Christian teaching and grace is by definition unmerited favor. But to quote St. James, ‘faith without works is dead.’ When we’re in moral trouble, we’re quick to latch on to grace; a genuine turning of our ways and the (bad) habits of lifetime is often delayed, and sometimes it’s avoided entirely.”

The determination of whether a person is truly repentant has both political and spiritual ramifications. A Republican strategist experienced in presidential campaigns said in a phone call, “People remember a lot of the positive aspects. They tend to forget the bad aspects. That’s human nature.” And such a candidates’ rivals are left looking churlish if they predict the person will misbehave once again.

Wehner agrees that it is hard to assess sincerity. He explains, “Most of us only see politicians from afar, in limited settings, and have no idea how they conduct themselves in their private lives, from how they treat their wives and children to how they treat those whom they have power over to their sympathy and compassion to their integrity. John Edwards projected a good image; he also led a perfectly disgraceful personal life.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t think it is fruitless to try to assess if a person has truly changed. “The things I would look to are whether old patterns emerge or new ones develop. Is a person reacting to situations in a manner that shows greater depth of character than they once possessed? And what is said by the people in that individual’s professional and personal circle? When the doors are shut and the cameras are off, how do they conduct themselves?” He also cautions: “What complicates things even more is that one can repent from certain character flaws — like, say, adultery — and still not be a person who is reliable, well-grounded, and admirable. You can be a knave and still not cheat on your wife.”

Despite their portrayal in the mainstream media as hyper-judgmental, conservatives in this election seemly oddly squeamish about taking the character issue head on. Bennett worries if this is the “Clinton legacy,” the lowering of standards and expectations for our leaders. Is that happening in the 2012 presidential primary? He says, “Not yet. But we’ll see.”