03/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Danger: Creeping Puritanism

Daschle's resignation should have been accepted; indeed welcomed. However, that of Nancy Killefer should have been refused, if it is true that all her troubles amounted to a few hundred dollars taxes not paid when due. Puritanism long suffered -- and inflicted tons of suffering on others -- by demanding human perfection and by making a mountain of sin out of every minor transgression. I am not saying that the president, the Senate, or the American people should ignore a violation of the law, even when it's jaywalking. However, responses must be tailored to the "sin." Not all imperfections make a person unfit for office.

Obama should take a leaf out of those major religions, such as Catholicism and Judaism, that draw a clear distinction between venial and mortal sins, rather than treating all sins as equally cardinal. And, from the criminal code, which responds to some violations merely by issuing a warning or imposing a small fine and to other violations by incarcerating people for life.

More important, the same religions and codes take into account the way a person deals with his misconduct. Both consider whether the person shows true remorse, makes amends, and restructures his life, or whether he denies all wrong doing, blames others, and tries to gain more (as Rod Blagojevich recently did).

The trouble with Daschle is not so much his violation of the tax code, but is instead the way he dealt with it, and that it seems like a pattern of abuse rather than an isolated incident. Members of Congress can hardly point their finger at someone who received gifts in kind and did not report them as income. If I had a dollar for every current and former member of Congress who crossed that line, I would have to greatly amend my tax return.

Daschle, however, seems to show a pattern of abuse. His amended returns also reflected unpaid taxes on consulting work and reduced deductions for charitable contributions. Moreover, he boasted being pure as the driven snow when he ran a campaign ad touting the fact that he was still using his old, rusty personal car -- castigating others in Washington who were running around in chauffeured limousines. Above all, far from showing remorse and making amends -- he failed to report his violations to the president's staff during the vetting process. And, oddly, he delayed acting to correct this wrong doing for six months after it was noted.

Obama should make it clear that minor failings call for a public apology and penalties, but do not disqualify a person from serving in his administration. Others violations -- such as revealing state secrets, say the name of an undercover CIA agent -- will send one packing -- before the day is out.

In other words, introducing higher standards does not mean a quest for human perfection. Otherwise, Obama may have a hard time filing the ranks of his administration and keeping those already in place. Also, he will set the wrong tone for the country. We need for people to take responsibility, but this includes being able to tell the difference between the minor failings we all have and grievous transgressions, and to judge appropriately the ways we react to both -- without ignoring one or the other.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and editor of the book Civic Repentance (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999)