Why do disgraced, scandal-plagued politicians like Mark Sanford keep making comebacks?

In one of the great skewerings of both the Washington political establishment and modern language, George Carlin destroyed politicians–here you should think of Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner–who are caught in a major scandal, but don’t see why that should disqualify them from future “public service.”

“And we know [he must be guilty] because the next thing we hear from him is, ‘I just want to put this thing behind me and get on with my life.’ That’s an expression we hear a lot these days from people in all walks of life. Usually the person in question has committed some unspeakable act: ‘Yes, it’s true that I strangled my wife, shot the triplets, set fire to the house, and sold my young son to an old man on the train… but now I just want to put this thing behind me and get on with my life.’ That’s the problem in this country… too many people getting on with their lives. I think what we really need more of is ritual suicide. Never mind the big press conferences, get the big knife out of the drawer.”

It’s hard not to consider Carlin’s now decade old remarks given the ubiquity of the second chance politician in the contemporary United States. Recently the shameless adulterer Mark Sanford was reelected by a cowardly batch of South Carolina Republicans who sold their morals for a seat in the House. More recent still, the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner who famously sent pictures of his genitals to multiple young women is looking a strong candidate for mayor of our nation’s largest city. We can also mention David Petraeus, who recovered from an ongoing affair with his biographer to rise to a top position at a major Wall Street investment firm. And there’s also the disgraced former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who both plagiarized and fabricated quotations in a recent book and is now, only a year later, shopping a new book to publishers.

True, all four second chance celebrities took their fair share of scorn from the public, yet all of them seem well on their way to a full (professional) recovery with nary a lesson learned. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat summed up the sorry state of affairs by saying “I’m a John Profumo man in a Mark Sanford world,” alluding to a former British politician caught in scandal who, rather than pursuing further power after the scandal had faded from public view, spent the next four decades of his life working for a local charity, washing dishes, collecting rent, and eventually became the president of the charitable organization, transforming it into a national institution that served the common good. Contrasting that with Sanford and his comments about “a forgiving god,” Douthat delightfully snarked:

“Because of course when Jesus told his disciples to forgive sinners seven times seven times, what he really meant was that they should affirm people in whatever they’ve done and want to do and then return them to high office as swiftly as possible. And when he raised Lazarus from the dead, it was likewise a sign that no political ambition need ever be set aside or abandoned, no matter how the politician in question has failed the public trust. For that matter, who can forget the famous gospel passage where John the Baptist officiated at King Herod’s second marriage, and then encouraged the Roman government to give Herod a few new titles and honors? I’m surprised Sanford didn’t reference that one!”

Beneath the mockery, however, we have to ask a serious question about why these politicians can so quickly return to the limelight. Part of it, no doubt, is how polarized our nation is and how monstrous Washington’s influence is on that polarized nation. This explains why prominent conservatives are quite willing to repudiate everything their moral code stands for in the name of attaining public office. (Mere O has a much better track record on this front.) But I don’t think the call of Washington alone is enough to explain these second chance politicians.

We must also recognize that today’s politicians seem to have a different idea about the nature of good and evil. In the classical tradition of the Christian west, moral acts were understood to offend a moral standard woven into the fabric of the universe. Simply making restitution with the offended parties and getting a bit of time between oneself and the scandal was not enough to make it right. There was an understanding that an objective standard had been offended and restitution required a penance that matched the severity of the crime. Writing over 50 years ago, C.S. Lewis captured the problem nicely:

“The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”

What’s interesting about the above excerpt is that Lewis foresaw the problem as it affected common citizens plagued by the state. He saw the potential for rampant abuse of power as an all-powerful state simply redefined what it meant for a citizen to be “cured” whenever it suited them. This is still a very real and legitimate concern. But the above cases make clear that a second kind of abuse is equally possible. The powerful can make the definition of “cured” more stringent to oppress the masses, but they can equally make it more lenient to suit their own ambitions. And so it is with Sanford, who has been deemed fit for office despite asking his divorced wife to manage his campaign and breaking into her home. And, should he win the election, so it will be with Weiner despite the fact that only 20 months ago he was sending out pictures of his genitals to young women.

This final point will seem a bit more of a leap, but it’s worth pushing: If Lewis is right and keeping alive the notion of “just desserts” is an essential part of our moral witness and health, then how can Christian theology and practice honor that importance? Obviously one way we can value it is calling out the dishonorable behavior of Mark Sanford and others like him. Here Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher have both done an admirable job.

But our evangelical witness ought to start by loving and defending substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement, after all, is simply the retributive theory of justice applied to the relationship between God and man. Man committed a great evil against God for which there can be only one just dessert. God, in his mercy, substitutes himself for us and pays that penalty. If we lose track of substitutionary atonement, we are already on our way to losing track of the broader theme of retributive justice, and once we lose track of retributive justice, there’s little to stand in the way of shameless men like Sanford and Weiner using their prominence and power (and the cowardice of the electorate) to continue their rise despite their moral failings.

To be clear, what we’re talking about here is not a slippery slope, but a natural progression. We need a way to answer the question of what a person should do after being caught in scandal (or simply caught in sin, for those of us fortunate enough to not be public figures). If we cannot answer that question in terms of our relationship to God, then we will not be able to answer it in relation to our neighbor. It’s not a slippery slope, but a natural progression.

To borrow an image from Doug Wilson, you shouldn’t be surprised when a train hits the next station along the tracks. So when we see Mark Sanford rise back to prominence after disgracing himself, his office, his family, and his church in such a prominent way, we’re not simply witnessing a discrete moral failing. We’re witnessing the logical consequence of what happens when evil is no longer about offending a standard and repentance is no longer about receiving the just consequences of offending the standard. But the first place we have to understand and apply this beautiful and healthy approach to justice is not to our neighbors, but in our relationship to God–and that means glorying in substitutionary atonement.

Image via Salon

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.