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The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

27526345Whether you are a politician caught carrying on with an intern or a minister photographed with a prostitute, discovery does not necessarily spell the end of your public career. Admit your sins carefully, using the essential elements of an evangelical confession identified by Susan Wise Bauer in The Art of the Public Grovel, and you, like Bill Clinton, just might survive.

In this fascinating and important history of public confession in modern America, Bauer explains why and how a type of confession that first arose among nineteenth-century evangelicals has today become the required form for any successful public admission of wrongdoing–even when the wrongdoer has no connection with evangelicalism and the context is thoroughly secular. She shows how Protestant revivalism, group psychotherapy, and the advent of talk TV combined to turn evangelical-style confession into a mainstream secular rite. Those who master the form–Bill Clinton, Jimmy Swaggart, David Vitter, and Ted Haggard–have a chance of surviving and even thriving, while those who don’t–Ted Kennedy, Jim Bakker, Cardinal Bernard Law, Mark Foley, and Eliot Spitzer–will never really recover.

Revealing the rhetoric, theology, and history that lie behind every successful public plea for forgiveness, The Art of the Public Grovel will interest anyone who has ever wondered why Clinton is still popular while Bakker fell out of public view, Ted Kennedy never got to be president, and Law moved to Rome.
Publisher’s description from Princeton University Press

“[A] very entertaining book. Reading this book is like putting the noses of these famous men . . . in the mud all over again. Bauer’s book, however, is more than a seminar in how to cringe with dignity. It is a lesson in how religious rituals, no matter how old they are, never die. Bauer is a skilled analyst of political rhetoric. She is also a terrific writer.”–Stephen H. Webb, Christianity Today

“[E]legant in its simplicity and surprisingly persuasive.”–Susan Bordo, Chronicle Review

“[A]n engaging, sophisticated and wholly persuasive account of how some public figures get away with transgressions and some do not. And the thread linking all of them is the practice of religion. [Bauer's] accompanying texts of successful and failed confessions complete an elegant study, also useful for any aspiring public figure.”–Jurek Martin, Financial Times

“[A] canny analysis of American political symbolism.”–Laura Miller, Salon.com

John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Ted Haggard — another day, another high-profile leader publicly admits to a sexual transgression. Susan Wise Bauer argues persuasively that unspoken but strict rules of etiquette surround these confessions and that getting it right can make the difference between being permanently shunned or — as in the case of Bill Clinton — emerging from a scandal more popular than ever. Apologizing — merely expressing regret — doesn’t cut it, says Bauer. What’s required is a full-fledged confession: “I am sorry because I did wrong. I sinned.” And forget trying to treat contrition as a private matter. A grovel isn’t a grovel unless we all get to watch. Bauer, who holds a Ph.D. in American studies, traces the expectation that leaders beg our forgiveness for sexual sin to the influence of an American evangelicalism that preaches public confession an essential step toward redemption. She makes a strong case. But whether a reader accepts her premise or not, this exhaustively researched book offers a fascinating trip through more than a century of America’s top sex scandals — from Grover Cleveland’s bastard child to Cardinal Law’s protection of pedophile priests. The sex is the least of it. What’s most intriguing is the history of arrogance, dissembling, bizarre self-justification, and, on occasion, canny political maneuvering. In the future, disgraced politicians and clergymen could use Bauer’s book as a primer on the dos and don’ts of rescuing a career. Do: Confess and ask for forgiveness (Clinton, eventually). Don’t: Confess in the pages of Playboy (Jimmy Carter). Really Don’t: Claim you were “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends…with the aid of a female confederate” (Jim Bakker). It’s a safe bet that sometime very soon yet another leader will find himself needing to practice the “art” described in this book.”–Karen Holt, Barnes & Noble Review

“As a bonus, Bauer append the texts of statements by six confessors. Connoisseurs of venial sin will want to compare and contrast.”–James Boylan, Columbia Journalism Review

“Bauer’s gallery of scoundrels is . . . worth a lingering visit. And the book includes as an appendix a handy collection of the confessions and apologies of Kennedy, Carter, Bakker, Swaggart, Clinton, and Law. For this alone, I intend to keep my copy on the shelf beside my hardbound edition of The Confidence Man.”–Peter W. Wood, American Conservative

“People interested in the reasons why confession is different than apology, and how to tell the difference the next time a Senator is caught in a men’s room with a ‘wide stance’ will enjoy this humorous and fascinating book. Wannabe politicians and public figures should keep a copy for reference on hand for the almost inevitable slip up.”–Sacramento Book Review

“Interesting, well-written, and well-researched, this book should have wide appeal. Who doesn’t want to read about sex and confession and how the mighty fall and, in some cases, get up again?”–Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t

“This very fine book will enrich and deepen the conversation about religion and public life in America. Bauer writes clearly and vividly and she balances good storytelling with sound scholarship.”–Alan Jacobs, author of Original Sin: A Cultural History

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Princeton University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-691-13810-7

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