Brad Hirschfield: The redemption of Mark Sanford

Apr 04, 2013

In a column addressing Mark Sanford attributing his recent victory to God's grace, Brad Hirschfield wrote:

"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 which can be appreciated whatever one thinks about God."

Does Mark Sanford really deserve a second chance? Did it really come from God as he claims? What do you think about public figures address God in public speeches? Discuss these topics live with Hirschfield at 1 p.m. ET.

Submit questions and opinions for Hirschfield to respond to now.

Does Mark Sanford deserve the second chance he seems to be getting?  Is it really a sign of God's grace, as the former Governor claims?  Is it really appropriate to inject such clearly theological language into political discussion?


What about "American grace", by which I mean the deeply forgiving spirit that animates so many American voters?  How does forgiveness figure into our choices about the politicians we support?


Let's gete started as we explore these and other questions!

No problem with public figures talking about the deities they personally worship, as long as it's clear that they're speaking for themselves or within the context of their own religions. Obama's Easter message was obviously targeted at the subset of Americans who share his own beliefs, and I can easily imagine a Jewish president doing the same for Passover or a Muslim one for Ramadan. The problem arises when a figure wraps sectarian beliefs about deities in the guise of "civil religion." The name God applies to only some religions - others have many deities, or other types of supernatural beings, or no deities. "Civil religion" generally amounts to treating a majority religion as normative. There's plenty of room for public figures to talk about the importance of religion to many Americans without appearing to endorse any particular religion.

You and candidate Sanford may be very much on the same page!  When he spoke at his primary victory party, he refered to "my God".  That "my" would be used to modify the word god, may sound strange or even inappropriate to some, but I think he used it to mark the  line which you so carefully defend -- the line between proclaiming one's faith and proclaiming that it should be everybody's faith.


Like you, I think that line is a crucial one, though I think we can speak of God without any modifiers, without crossing that line.  I also think that civil religion is far more complex than simply confusuing the majority with the whole.  Something can be normative, without being disrespectful of that which lies outside the norm.  It's not an easy balance to uphold, but without trying, we simply create a new normative -- that which assumes there is no such thing as normativity.

One of the reasons why I cringe when people mention "god" in public is because they are often talking about a different "god". While many religions believe in one god, the attributes they assign him are different. I believe that God allows good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to good people. Trying to say that God is on your side because something good happened cannot be assumed. God didn't target Sandy at the East Coast of the US last year because the people there are bad. He allowed the storm to strike and gave those who he would consider "good" the strength to continue through the storm.

So thin really interesting thing is that while you reject one theology being shared in public, you have no problem using your own.  I am okay with that, but you do realize that your calim the "He allowed the storm to happen because..." is every bit as problematic to some people as the words which both you!


Does God "allow" storms?  Is that different than causing them?  Is God a "He", as you write?  Is there a god at all?


I am not syaing that you are wrong regarding any of the presumptions you make, or conclusions that you reach, but it's important to not that when it comes to God-talk in public, the answer probably has more to do with making space for multiple and even contradictory possibilties, than it does with getting "the right answer".

I think Sanford is a dolt. As a Christian, I know that god can forgive us for anything. But, he is pursuing his sin, so he isn't really interested in forgiveness. I feel most sorry for his children who have such a poor example in their father. Perhaps, he is controllable and as one article(Chris Cillizza -WP) put it so eloquently"the turd in the punch bowl". In a way,though, MS is right. As constantly as society and governments hate the idea, all governments are short-lived and subject to God's will. Sometimes God allows us to get our just desserts like the "feces in the pie" as in The Help. Even the worst of men are sometimes allowed to live in the interest of God's overall plan for man!!

So if it's all part of God's plan, how do you know that Sanford is a dolt, and not a mindfull agent of the Divine?  and how do you that he is, as you wrote, "pursuing his sin"?  Is it because he is creating a new life with the woman he the affair with?  Why could that not simply be part of God's plan for his ultimate happiness?


What constitutes "just deserts"?  If it's all part of God's plan, why should anyone be punished for anything?


I think that you are wrestling with some very big and important questions -- all having to do with our need to trust that life is always more than it seems from our limited perspective, while also being willing to make meaningful judgments from the place where we stand.  Whatever belief system one holds, including that of no faith at all, that is perhaps the biggest human challenge we face in this next era of intelletual and spiritual evolution.

From a moral perspective, is there more of a loaded term than white guilt. It may make liberals feel better about themselves, but it also is really untrue. As someone who went to a private school in potomac, the privledge comes from class, it doesn't come skin color. The Asian or African American family whose parents are doctors pulling in 300K + a year has far more privledge than a white family living in poverty in Alabama. How can we get away from overreaching statements as a society and start addressing real issues?

What you are really asking is how can we get away from the overreaching statements with which you disagree, to making those with which you do!  You categorically reject race as a meaningful distinction, and substitute class instead.  Clearly, you make an important point, but just as clearly, race does remain a real issue in our country.  As big as it once was?  No!  Totally unimportant to issues of privledge and unward mobility?  No to that as well.


Think both/and instead of either/or, and I think you will reach more productive conclusions.

As a nonbeliever I think this is a bunch of hooey and wish everyone would give it a rest. However, there's no doubt it plays in Peoria, or at least in Oklahoma, the "buckle on the Bible belt" where i'm from. I realize many of these people are sincere, and I think they're nuts. I mean, look at the state of the world. But I know it's not going to go away so I've learned to simply ignore it.

Calling what hundreds of millions of people believe "hooey" and describing them as "nuts" doesn't sound like you have simply learned to ignore anything.  It sounds like you are pretty annoyed. 


Now given where you live and believing what you beleive, I appreciate that it's not always easy for you.  That said, you might want to think a bit more about the relationship between the conclusions that others have reached and, in this case, the forgiving spirit it gives them.  My guess is that, like them, it is something you share.  the real challenge for both you and those with whom you disagree, is how much you are willing to embrace the dignity of each others views.  THAT, not simply ignoring each other, is the mark of a maximally functional society.

With politicians and extra-marital affairs, their families need to provide the forgiveness. Let the voters decide if he merits a second bite at the apple.

You raise a VERY important point, namely that it is those who are injured, and they alone, who are in a position to forgive.  Of course, when public official behave in less than trustworthy ways, they have transgressed agains the public and that public will have to decide whether or nt to forgive that transgression, which is not the same as the ones committed against, in this case, a former wife and children.

I am always troubled by the notion of citing specific examples of God's Grace; being thankful in a broad way for God's presence in my life seems about right, but anytime I veer into specific thanks (for health outcomes, raises, college admissions, election results, etc.) suggest that God does indeed pick and choose particular outcomes for particular people and events. Which means there's a loser for every winner, chosen by God. I find that dreadful. So the corollary to gratitude is a zero-game? Grace is unevenly distributed. Sorry. Can't go there. Help me find a way to accept the vagaries of life with a grateful heart.

I applaud your willingness to embrace an uncomfortable truth:  if God is handing out the good outcomes we cherish, then that same God is doing the stuff which we hate, assuming that one is a monotheist. 


I don't know that we must then give up on gratitude for specific things we like, but it sure means that we all need to step a bit more humbly when it comes to presuming to understand the Divine calculus of reward and punishment which so many of us love to tout.

It's just like the brouhaha over the Democrats omitting/restoring God to their platform statement at their party convention a few years back. Just a political maneuver to preempt criticism. I don't EVER find it sincere when celebrities, athletes or politicians invoke God's name in their speeches. Perhaps I'm just projecting my own lack of faith, but it always makes ya wonder, "why didn't God bless [the other team/party/whatever]?" and "why, meanwhile, does He do such awful things to [other people/countries/whatever?" In Sanford's case, I believe thanking God is code for, "phew, how'd I get away with THAT?"

Yes, I would have to agree with you -- you do seem to be projecting a fair bit of your own disbelief on to others.  My guess is that, as is so often the case, there is a wide range of reasons and emotions which lie behind people's invoking God and God's presence in their lives.


You are certainly wise to remind us that simply thanking God for getting what we deem to be a good outcome, without also placing responsibility upon that same God for the what we deem to be a bad outcome, is sloppy theology at best, and dangerously self-serving at worst.

I believe that God gives people the strength to overcome the good and bad that comes their way. He doesn't prevent the bad things from happening or make good things happen (with the exception of miracles). God can give someone the strength needed to stay in a race until the end, but he doesn't change the outcome to suit our wishes.

"With the exception of miracles"?  Why that exception?  What counts as a miracle?  Why not assume that they are simply events which you can't explain?  If God is the unmoved mover you describe, why make exceptions?


Since nobody can be sure about anything when it comes to God, I raise these questions simply as a way to deepen our thinking by questioning our assumptions.  That seems to me to be an act which lies at the heart of all good thinking about God and the non-existence of God, and all views in between.

I say this in all honesty as someone who considers themselves religious. He's claiming he won because God forgave him, therefore we should ignore his past actions as governor, when he notoriously disappeared from office and used taxpayer dollars to visit his mistress, breaking the holy vows of his marriage. If he's really found religion and wants to live his life in a moral way, why not focus on helping others- public safety, welfare, well-paying jobs and non-violence? I'm not saying he doesn't deserve a second chance, and if he has better policy views that speak to South Carolina voters than Colbert-Bosch than he should win. But leave God out of the political arena, don't claim he's the reason that you won.

Like you, I am uncomfortable with claiming that God is the reason that anyone wins an election.  That said, I was kind of moved by Sanfords claim that it was "his God" (a personal experience, not a policy claim), that it was an act of grace (something inspiring which cannot be fully explained or accounted for), and that he himsefl used to "cringe" when others made such claims (reminding us, if only tacitly, that matters of faith and our undestanding of them, are deeply personal).


Whether he should get another shot at Congress, is up to the voters of South Carolina.  That his speech highlighted some valuable lessons about the use of God in public, seems worthy of recognition.

Certainly, our successes - and failures - involve factors that are outside our control, and choosing to acknowledge that with humility is worthwhile. However, when politicians thank their god for a success, I often hear the echoes of monarchs in times past who invoke their "Divine Right" to rule rather than humility: a "God likes me better than him/her" sort of rationalization that leads to extremely poor behavior down the road. For example, "I don't like [insert prejudice here] people, my god got me elected, therefore god doesn't like those people either, ergo, my prejudice is a fine and righteous thing." QED, with no honest spiritual reflection required. Job done. And don't get me started on the "God Bless America" that ends every speech, and sounds more like a command than a hope.

It's not that we disagree, but I think that you may be getting ahead of yourself.  The fact that an idea can be extended to abusive ends, as was the case with much relgious power in politcal hands throughout history, and still today, does not mean that every mention of God is an attempt to take us back to those days.


As is so often the case when it come to the issue of God/religion and politics, we are too easily divided between those who would throw the baby out with the bathwater, and those who want us all bathed in the particular salvation which works for them.  Those must not be the only two choices we have.

I am Jewish and a former elected official (local). As a consequence of the latter, I regularly found myself (and still do) in public situations where a cleric or individual would end a prayer with some variation of , "In Jesus name, Amen." If there were opportunities to talk to the person who gave the prayer in a non-confrontational setting, I would raise the question of how non-Christians felt when they were asked to participate in a prayer that would not allow them to join in the Amen. Sometimes, the conversations were positive and constructive; sometimes I got the "Are you from Mars" look. Why is it so hard for people to understand the nature of a public prayer and making it inviting for everyone? I note that I also had/have numerous occasions to attend services and events in various houses of worship and I know what to expect. I stand when asked, listen to the prayer, embrace the message of love, care, service, etc., skip the Amen, and sit down. No problem. Over the years, I have stopped fighting the battle because I realize it's somewhat futile, but I wish it were not so. On a positive note, there are still occasions where I am participating in a public prayer by a cleric who makes it truly non-denominational and I find joining in those prayers that much more comforting.

You raise so many important and interesting issues -- more than we can go into here with proper attention.  At the very least however, we should appreciate that somewhere between prayers to which we can all say "amen" (no such thing) and imagining that all people should say "amen" to the prayers which work for any one of us (deeply arrogant), lies an ethic of public prayer which respects both the particularity of the one uttering the prayer, and diversity of the audience before whom it is uttered.  Accomplishing that will probably demand both different prayers and the ability to widen the list of prayers to which we are willing to say "amen".

Why would God care if Sanford wins? Why would God care if your sports team wins? If God could do something about these contests, wouldn't he/she be busier stopping floods from killing people instead of helping the Nats hit a homer? Slightly off topic, why do people pray to God to save victims of a disaster? If God could do something, wouldn't he/she have prevented the disaster in the first place?

Teh simply answer to your questions: because God is God.  In other words, and very much like those whose views you reject, you start with a very carefully defined God and then ask questions to butress your (non-)belief.


I think a better way for both beleivers and non-believers to work, would be to ask each other how their respective views address the biggest questions they have and what they do when they run into questions or really challenging situations which don't fit so meatly with the views they noramlly hold.  If that never happens to them -- if they never have questions or dicomforts -- then they really don't want to have a real conversation, and it's probbaly better to let it go.

Well, our time is at hand and my hands are tired!


Thanks, as always, for so many thoughtful comments and interesting questions.


Don't forget to follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield, or find me on facebook, where this conversation can continue!



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Bradley Hirschfield
Brad Hirschfield is a public ethicist, author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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