Why Anthony Weiner Shouldn't Bank on Forgiveness in the New York Mayoral Race

Jill Lawrence

Former Rep. Anthony Weiner's bid for a second chance in politics is not evincing much sympathy from New Yorkers, starting right at the top. "Shame on us" if the disgraced Democrat is elected mayor of New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told a Syracuse editorial board this week.

You'd think Weiner's sexting sins would pale beside Mark Sanford's extramarital adventures in Argentina as the AWOL South Carolina governor. And yet Sanford received the blessing of his successor, Gov. Nikki Haley, and has now returned to his old seat in Congress after a campaign heavy on confession and self-flagellation. Are New Yorkers more puritanical than South Carolinians?

Of the many differences between the two electorates, religion is a stark one and may be part of why Weiner's comeback attempt is being greeted with such resistance, even scorn. Evangelicals are a powerful political force in South Carolina - two-thirds of GOP primary voters in the state last year described themselves as born again or evangelical Christians. And redemption and forgiveness for personal sins is a cornerstone of that faith.

When it comes to sexual sins, "evangelical Southerners are often hardest on these figures. They preach on these things quite strongly," says Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University. "But starting over tends to be easier."

That's because a core tenet of evangelical Christianity is "repentance for sin, being able to start anew, start afresh," she says. "They are quite willing to forgive fallen-ness, at least if it's heterosexual fallen-ness."

New York City is much more heavily Catholic (62 percent) and Jewish (22 percent) than the rest of the country, according to a 2008 statistical analysis. At only about 4 percent evangelical, it's well below the rest of the nation in that category.

What does this mean for the politician seeking redemption? It's a lot harder. Redemption has a different meaning for Catholics and Jews. In Judaism, redemption is "not so much about an individual overcoming sin but about being redeemed as a people," says historian Kevin Schultz, a specialist in Catholic and religious studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The narrative is of a community cast out into exile, he says, then collectively living up to its covenant with God and invited to return.

In practice if not theology, a similar dynamic holds in Catholicism, Schultz says. "It's much more of a communal effort - going back to your parish and doing good works on the ground for the local community, not an individual crying in front of the camera saying I want to be forgiven for my sins."

Weiner, driven out of Congress after sexting photos of his, um, equipment, to women he hadn't met, has not spent the last two years in any kind of conspicuous community service. Instead he has rebuilt his marriage, cared for his new baby, and reportedly earned a bundle in consulting fees. He may end up serving his community - but first it has to elect him mayor.

A video announcing Weiner's candidacy features his baby son and Huma Abedin, the wife who has stuck by him and, as suggested by her presence in the video, has forgiven him. The only mention of his troubles is a brief one at the end. "Look, I've made some big mistakes. And I know I let a lot of people down. But I've also learned some tough lessons," Weiner says. He does not cry or offer his phone number to voters who want to rail at him or make sure he really has repented.

Sanford cried when the press confronted him on his extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina and this year took out a campaign ad offering to discuss his personal transgressions with all comers, complete with cell number. He was the star of a 2009 saga much stranger and more egregious than Weiner's garden-variety immaturity. His misuse of state resources—for instance, using state funds to travel to Argentina—resulted in a record $74,000 ethics fine as well as a divorce.

The high-profile fiscal conservative not only stayed in office until January 2011, when his gubernatorial term ended, he won a House primary against other Republicans with similar views and defeated Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch this month to win back his Charleston area seat. This despite the fact that his ex-wife charged him with trespassing after he showed up at her house in violation of their divorce terms. To top it off, at least one visibly disconcerted son met his future stepmother for the first time at Sanford's victory party.

Weiner is trailing New York City Council President Christine Quinn in a Quinnipiac poll of the Democratic of the primary field, and a majority of women oppose him. In addition, Bill and Hillary Clinton—who are close to Weiner's wife—are sitting out the race. Still, nearly four months ahead of the Sept. 10 primary, there is some fluidity to the field.

Weiner has an advantage over Sanford's primary opponents in that, like Sanford, he is a household name. And, like Sanford, he seems to know his audience. He is not banking on forgiveness or a redemption narrative. He is powering forward on nerve, audacity, and a platform as unusual as his political history (his proposals include question time for public officials and GPS tracking of convicted sex offenders).

If Weiner somehow pulls this off, well, Eliot Spitzer, call your consultants.