There’s been a lot of talk about the sins of Donald Trump in the wake of his self-described “locker-room” banter that included admissions of what could accurately be described as voyeurism and sexual assault.
The offensiveness of Trump’s comments does not seem be a debatable point. But consensus quickly evaporates when talk turns to how seriously Trump’s words should be taken; whether his apology was sufficient; and whether he himself is not only irredeemable as a candidate, but as a human being. Also, the point has been made that leaders like FDR and JFK--not to mention Bill Clinton--had their own sexual peccadillos that did not prevent them from becoming successful presidents.
In an age of tweets and social media, “sin” might seem to be an archaic way view things, especially given the undeniable fact that the electorate is becoming less religious. But Trump has been actively courting Christian support: some Evangelical Christian leaders have endorsed him and Trump himself rather belatedly assembled a Catholic advisory group. Given these political moves, it’s not surprising that Trump’s vulgarity and lewdness have added fuel to fires of criticism scorching the religious right for hypocrisy.
Regardless of whether some Christian leaders are still supporting Trump as a matter of simple expediency, it is true that forgiveness is a Christian value. And it’s also true, from a Christian perspective, that all of us have committed serious sins—in thought, word, and deed.
I think one of the most non-Christian points brought up by Christians in defending Trump is that he was just talking about sexual aggression whereas Bill Clinton—allegedly—actually followed through. While there may be a legal distinction between thought and action when it comes to culpability, before the eyes of God, there is none: Jesus unequivocally states in Matthew 5: 28: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Those are pretty strong words and would indict many of us. Perhaps recognizing this, Senator Richard Burr, the son of a Presbyterian minister, says that that Trump has apologized and he—that is, the senator—has forgiven him.
I myself learned some tough lessons about asking for forgiveness in the equivalent of a two-year spiritual boot camp run by an insightful, and confrontational, Jesuit spiritual advisor I worked with during my graduate school days in Chicago. Fr. Will, a pseudonym I’ll use here, always said that when you apologize to someone you need to express regret outright, without half-measures, qualifications, or excuses. But Fr. Will also emphasized that, along with the direct apology, the person asking for forgiveness should make clear three important things:
· What they were like when they committed the offense
· What they are like now and what they have learned
· What the person they had harmed can expect from them in the future
Just as he wasn’t very interested in easy-mercy, Fr. Will didn’t have much use for gentle language. And I think he would have had some choice words for Trump’s apology, which was vague, half-hearted, and certainly not followed by an effort to reach out to the women he had harmed in thought and word, and deed.
Nonetheless, forgiveness offered freely can have a transforming impact: it’s an act of courage that can lead the sinner to a new realization and, perhaps, a new life.
I learned about the transformative power of forgiveness during a high school reunion when a classmate I had bullied move to reconcile with me. That experience of forgiveness was so unexpected and so impactful that I wrote an entire book on the subject of mercy, Mercy Matters, in which I argued that mercy does lead to freedom to live a new kind of life. But along with that freedom and new life, mercy does not include a free pass to forget: even though the person I had bullied forgave me, I still needed to apologize to him.
Accordingly, if the women most immediately impacted by Trump’s behavior choose to forgive him, that does not mean—it cannot mean—that life should continue as if the behavior never happened.
While I would argue that it is simply not true that we men sexually degrade women when left to our own devices, it is true that all of us—both men and women—have been guilty of demeaning people behind their backs. To that extent, the sins of Donald Trump are a subset of a kind sin that we all do commit multiple times during our lives.
But there are other sins that belong primarily to public figures, along with the personal sins common to us all.
One of the most important lessons that Fr. Will taught me—again, in fine Jesuit fashion—was that one of the worst things we can do is exploit another person’s tendency to sin. We can easily do this in the context of our own personal relationships by manipulating someone’s pride, vanity, or greed. But public figures can do this on a larger scale that has repercussions far beyond what they themselves may intend or foresee.
Playing to people’s fears, stoking their prejudices, intensifying their tendency to blame and to distrust—these are effective political tactics to create enthusiasm and work like amphetamines to quickly focus attention and create a seemingly boundless energy. But once the human capacity to sin is validated and unleashed, it all too often taints and destroys all and everything that comes within its grasp.
We can rightly condemn Trump’s words and behavior toward women as we wait for him to personally reconcile with those he has harmed and tell us what he has learned from the process. But in doing so we also should realize that Donald Trump’s sins are our own: not just in the personal sense because we all have sinful thoughts and desires, but also in the public sense because our politics can too easily reflect our own weaknesses, our own worst instincts, and, indeed, our own inclination to sin in thought, word, and deed.