Voters in the U.S. have a tradition of looking past elected officials' public mistakes; some politicians receive their forgiveness, but most don't. In few cases, as long as the offender apologizes, pays his dues and seems to suffer in some way, he can rebound professionally. Consider the careers of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Both committed multiple affairs and retained popularity in most circles within their respective parties.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford provides a good example of one of the few politicians who can regain the public's trust after a very public misstep. (It's important to note that Sanford's affair was considered much less of an issue than his leaving the state with the administration not knowing where he was.)
Prior to the primary runoff election of yesterday, a debate moderator asked Sanford, "How do you reconcile redemption with the mistrust in the personal decision [you made] which could or may have compromised the state and the party?"
He answered that he "failed publicly… which does not mean that because you've had a failure in your personal life, that you cannot step back into life again."
While I agree that someone's past does not define his/her future, his answer did not really clarify the question of redemption. Redemption was an interesting choice of words, in light of the fact that it generally refers to the atonement for sins within a Christian context-but in the secular context "to be freed from captivity by payment of ransom."
Redemption is an easier concept to understand when learning how to apply the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which originated from the Christian Oxford Group in Keswick, England. The Oxford Group sought to emphasize righting wrongs beyond making apologies, otherwise known as "making amends."
Steps eight and nine refer to becoming willing to make amends to those who one has harmed and then making a "vigorous attempt to repair the damage caused." This includes restitution and reconciliation if possible.
In Sanford's case, he made amends to the people of South Carolina and received redemption in gaining a restored relationship with voters.
After the affair, Sanford apologized to the people of South Carolina and asked for their forgiveness "for letting them down." Any politician can apologize for mistakes and bad choices. What matters is that Sanford displayed a commitment to a changed life (a form of making amends), specifically related to not "compromising the state and the party" again.
Sanford's redemption came from voters because he pledges to uphold the Constitution of the United States by committing to fiscally conservative policies that will seek to reverse the path along which the Obama Administration has taken this country further into debt; by committing to focus on policies that foster job creation, entitlement reform, and balance the budget while at the same time reducing government waste, fraud, and abuse.
Sanford won the voters trust because he focused on what he will accomplish for the people of South Carolina and because he committed to keeping his pledges of upholding the oath of office. He took the first steps of making amends by apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and paying restitution. (In 2009, Sanford paid $74,000 in fines to reimburse the state for both the state ethics investigation and his personal and travel expenses.)
The voters recognized that they have failures as well and wouldn't want them on the front page of international news. They would want their amends to be accepted by others if given the chance to make them. And they wouldn't want their failures rehashed over and over again.
The past is now in the past, but the future is at stake. Sanford will be up against the Colbert machine of Hollywood endorsements in a district where Obama took 40 percent of the vote in 2012.
Making amends to others is a lifetime and life-changing job. It's not a quick fix. But it paves the way to restored relationships, removes the wreckage of the past, and brings hope to the future. Sanford's win indicates that voters still believe in an America that is the land of opportunity and of second chances, both in life and in politics.