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Barbs, Brickbats and Picking the Best on the Ballot

November 05, 2000|JOHN J. THATAMANIL | John J. Thatamanil is an assistant professor of religious studies at Millsaps College

Presidential "mistakes": There certainly have been many in the last 40 years. One such mistake was confessed by a candid and perhaps naive presidential candidate on the pages of Playboy 24 years ago, the very year that Bush was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol--a "mistake" that was brought to light on Thursday.

The difference between these two disclosures is instructive, especially for those interested in the way that religion has figured in conversations about character in contemporary presidential politics.

When presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to "lusting in his heart," Carter placed himself in an ancient tradition of Christian self-disclosure, a tradition that leads most famously to St. Augustine. In his Confessions, the illustrious 4th century bishop reports not just the momentous sins of a lustful pre-Christian life but also, and more important for Augustine, the theft of fruit from a neighbor's tree in his boyhood. For Augustine, this incident was part of his own deepening understanding of the weakness of the human will--in principle free, but, practically, bound up with sin and divided against itself.

Until press reports of his arrest surfaced last week, Bush's admissions of guilt have not been characterized by Augustinian specificity. He has spoken only of youthful indiscretions and "mistakes" for which the American people have forgiven him.

What is disturbing about Bush's run for office, as opposed to Carter's own confession, is that Bush portrays his sins as a matter of the distant past. Presumably, now that his errant ways are behind him, Bush does not need a sense of irony and humility when he is busy questioning the moral fitness of his opponent and can easily promise to bring decency back to the presidential office. Nowhere evident is that acute sense of human sinfulness that so deeply marks the heart of Christian tradition.

Carter's statements were not intended to be confessional but were instead about other key elements essential to Christian character, aspects that receive little attention during national elections: a reluctance to judge and the capacity to forgive borne out of searching self-scrutiny and a deep awareness of divine holiness.

The price for ignoring these dimensions of Christian character is high. Our public life is filled with the acrid odor of hypocritical pseudo-sanctity, an odor that breeds in its wake an understandable but disturbing cynicism that dismisses commitments to personal character, public justice and ultimately political life altogether.

"Let the one who is without sin . . . "

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