"So much religion potential here ... and yet so many ghosts."
A faithful GetReligion reader offered that assessment of a long — LONG! — Politico Magazine profile of U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina:
After reading the piece — which focuses on Sanford's willingness to criticize President Donald Trump, the leader of his own party — here's my own, succinct response to the reader's critique: Amen!
The story, published just a few days ago, approaches 5,000 words. Roughly 4,997 of them are completely devoid of any religion content. So what else is new?
Before delving into the specifics of the Politico profile, it might be helpful to recall that holy ghosts (click here if you're not familiar with that term) have haunted the Sanford story for years.
Way back in 2009, reporters ignored the religion angle when Sanford — then South Carolina's governor and a married father of four — became embroiled in a sex scandal. Dig deep in the GetReligion archives, and you'll find posts from that year with titles such as "Sin and God's law at press conference," "Adulterers who pray together" and "Sanford's mission from God."
In 2013, when Sanford resurrected his political career and won a return to Congress, I wrote:
God figured heavily in Sanford's victory speech, with Yahoo News! noting that Sanford said he wanted to "publicly acknowledge God's role in this." (God was unavailable for comment, and I can't say I blame him.)
I am pretty certain Sanford was referring to God's alleged role in his election victory — as opposed to a role in Sanford carrying on a secret affair with an Argentine mistress, to whom he's now engaged after his divorce from the mother of his four children.
Amazingly, "God" fails to make even a cameo appearance in the Politico story. Yet the first holy ghost shows up in the first paragraph:
None of this feels normal. The congressman greets me inside his Washington office wearing a wrinkly collared shirt with its top two buttons undone, faded denim jeans and grungy, navy blue Crocs that expose his leather-textured feet. Nearing the end of our 30-minute interview, he cancels other appointments and extends our conversation by an hour. He repeatedly brings up his extramarital affair, unsolicited, pointing to the lessons learned and relationships lost. He acknowledges and embraces his own vulnerability—political, emotional and otherwise. He veers on and off the record, asking himself rhetorical questions, occasionally growing teary-eyed, and twice referring to our session as “my Catholic confessional.”
The piece does not mention Sanford's religious affiliation. But according to the Pew Research Center, he is Anglican/Episcopalian.
Other ghosts sprinkled throughout the piece include a note that his rehabilitation included "virtual Bible studies with his four sons," while his return to Congress required "a bottomless supply of soul-bearing mea culpas."
Yet "God" is not alone in his absence from the profile. Terms such as "church," "faith" and "sin" are conspicuously missing, too.
The ghosts are even more amazing considering the life-and-death symbolism cited by Politico as Sanford explains why he has nothing to lose by opposing Trump:
All this gives Sanford a unique sense of liberation to speak his mind about a president whose substance and style he considers a danger to democracy. “I’m a dead man walking,” he tells me, smiling. “If you’ve already been dead, you don’t fear it as much. I’ve been dead politically.”
His digs at Trump cover the spectrum. The president, Sanford says, “has fanned the flames of intolerance.” He has repeatedly misled the public, most recently about the national murder rate and the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks. He showed a lack of humility by using the National Prayer Breakfast to ridicule Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Most worrisome, Sanford says, Trump is unprepared for the presidency.
For the first time, Sanford begins to measure his words. “I’ve got to be careful,” he says. “Because people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones.”
It's fascinating, really.
I just wish Politico had felt compelled to explore — at least a bit — the spiritual as well as the political. When it comes to Sanford, a little soul searching certainly seems appropriate.