Generally, Martin Marty stays clear of politics, but Newt Gingrich's recent story of repentance simply had to be addressed. Newt is going to run for President as a champion of family values, though his own family values are suspect. He's on wife #3. He says he's repented, and that he's forgiven (I have no problem with that), but his rationale for his bad behavior is rather bizarre -- Marty calls it comic. I'm going to leave the rest to you to consider Marty's analysis (including his interaction with Psalm 51).
Newt Gingrich’s Comic Repentance
-- Martin E. Marty
After a week of tsunamis, earthquakes, Libyan horrors, Philadelphia clerical sex scandal news, National Public Radio disasters, and National Football League lock-out threats, we the people look for some comic relief. Celebrity politician Newt Gingrich provided this as he gave the Christian Broadcasting Network audience a rationale for his having committed a plethora of adulteries with, evidently inter alia, three wives. “[P]artially driven by how passionately I felt about this country. . . . I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he said. Things didn’t “happen,” everyone but Mr. Gingrich knows; he “happened” them. The rationale, people across the spectrum agree, related to Mr. Gingrich’s political efforts to gain support for a probable—or, at least, once probable—presidential nomination candidacy.
“I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness,” Gingrich said. Had he been talking to God in private repentance, what he said would have been no one’s business except God’s and his. Since he was talking publicly to the media and to the evangelicals he was courting, it is legitimate to note the comic dimensions of what he said. Remember what showman George M. Cohan once observed: “Many a bum show has been saved by the flag.” Mr. Gingrich, in his bum show, reached for the flag and pleaded the patriot excuse.
“Talk about a forgiving God?” he asked, or said, as he shifted into biblical mode. The template for politically-motivated repentance is the story of King David of old, who felt “passionately about his country,” enough to have something “happen in his life that was not appropriate.” That was having his general Uriah killed so that David’s adultery with Mrs. Uriah could be covered up. Serious evangelicals, and there are millions of them, are rightfully offended by this ploy. They may see similarities in the plot of David’s and Newt’s careers. Chapter headings in Steven L. McKenzie’s King David: A Biography include “Holy Terrorist: David and His Outlaw Band,” “Assassin,” “Like Father, Like Son: The Bathsheba Affair and Absalom’s Revolt.” Yes, many things in David’s case, though on a lesser scale, had also happened and were not appropriate.
McKenzie summarizes the record, including: “One of David’s wives is his best friend’s sister and his enemy’s daughter. . . . Some of his brides were new widows whose husbands had very recently died under suspicious circumstances.” We read that he’d “sent for Bathsheba and ‘lay’ with her.” (II. Sam. 11:4. Nothing is said of her feelings.) The King, “feeling passionate about [his] country,” had “worked too hard,” as evidenced when he brought Uriah on the scene. “All David could think to do was ask general questions about the welfare of the army and the war,” questions whose answer he knew.
Evangelicals believe that Psalm 51, a classic, the classic, of repentance literature was later written by David. They take their cue from an ancient subtitle, Psalm 51: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The climactic Psalm line, to God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” The stakes were high, but no match for those today, when a possible candidate has to make his case before a more stern judge: a bloc of voters in an American election. That Mr. Gingrich tried to be forgiven while using the “patriotism” and “overworking” excuses is what leads many to see a usually serious act turning out to have been what we called “comic.” Now, back to the serious matters of the week.
Steven L. McKenzie, King David: A Biography (Oxford, 2000).
UPI, “Gingrich: Working Too ‘Hard’ Led to Affair,” March 9, 2011.
Maggie Haberman, “Newt Gingrich: ‘I Was Doing Things That Were Wrong',” Politico, March 8, 2011.
Matt Sullivan, “How Newt Gingrich Misplaced His Member,” Esquire, March 9, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum is written by D. Max Moerman and entitled “The Death of the Dharma: Buddhist Sutra Burials in Early Medieval Japan.” In eleventh-century Japan, Buddhists fearing the arrival of the "Final Dharma"--an age of religious decline--began to bury sutras in sometimes-elaborate reliquaries. Why entomb a text, making it impossible for anyone to see or read it? And what do such practices teach us about the meaning and purpose of texts in Buddhism and other religions? Max Moerman of Barnard College takes up these questions with responses from Jeff Wilson (Renison University College), James W. Watts (Syracuse University) and Vincent Wimbush (Claremont Graduate University).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.