In this article I’d like to address one significant casualty of the stupefying support Donald Trump receives among Caucasian American evangelicals (CAE). (At 100 days into his presidency his job approval remained at 80% among CAEs.) And that casualty is this: the death of contrition.
First off, what is “contrition”? Gerald O’Collins and Edward Farugia offer the following definition: “A heartfelt sorrow for past sin accompanied by the intention not to sin again.” (A Concise Dictionary of Theology, rev. ed. (Paulist Press, 2000) 53). O’Collins and Farugia go on to point out that genuine contrition is necessary for penance (i.e. repentance and restoration for all you non-Catholics).
What O’Collins and Farugia describe is uncontroversial. Contrition requires this demonstration of sorrow, genuine remorse, repentance, and the resolution to sin no longer, to be a better person. Of course, genuine contrition also entails that one does not attempt to ameliorate their indiscretion by minimizing their actions or shifting blame to others.
When a public figure commits a moral indiscretion for which contrition is required, there is a reasonable expectation that the apology and the demonstration of contrition will be public. Here is one of the most famous (or infamous) examples of public contrition in our modern age. It comes from evangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s famous 1988 “I have sinned” apology which he gave after being caught cavorting with prostitutes:
We can always debate whether Swaggart was genuine in his expression of contrition. But then we can do that about any apology. The fact is, however, that Swaggart’s apology includes the elements one would expect of genuine contrition. He displays sorrow, he owns his actions by calling them sin and carefully enumerating those he has offended against. And he doesn’t attempt to diminish his actions, shift the topic, or deflect blame to anyone else. That’s what true contrition looks like.
Now we come to Donald Trump.
Last October the world was stunned (but perhaps not surprised) when news of the infamous Access Hollywood video broke in which Donald Trump brags of sexually assaulting women. Following that major scandal, Trump issued an apology of his own.
Here’s the important part. Over the last eight months I have observed that the CAEs who support Trump have widely embraced his statement as constituting the elements of a genuine apology, including the genuine display of contrition. I know this because when I raise the Access Hollywood recording, the response frequently is that it is inappropriate to mention this because Trump has apologized.
This issue arose again a couple days ago when I had a spirited but friendly exchange with Dr. Michael Brown. Here is the relevant excerpt
How does it dignify your position when you constantly bring up ugly comments he made more than a decade which he clearly said he regrets?
— Dr. Michael L. Brown (@DrMichaelLBrown) June 8, 2017
Note that Brown assumes here that it is inappropriate to mention the fact that Trump has bragged of sexually assaulting women because he has since expressed “regret” (i.e. genuine contrition).
But is that true? Has Trump done so? Here is Trump’s famous apology following the release of the Access Hollywood recording:
Does this statement reflect the contrition that is indicative of a genuine apology?
Note first that the emotional affect is completely wrong. Trump does not demonstrate sorrow in this apology. He speaks sternly with his head tilted down and his brow furrowed. To highlight the role of body language, watch both Swaggart and Trump’s statements with the sound turned off. Which of those two looks more like an apology? Swaggart’s tear-stained cheeks or Trump’s hunched, stern expression?
It is true that in his 1 minute 30 statement Trump does spend seven seconds apologizing. Approximately eighteen seconds into the statement he takes four seconds to say “I said it. I was wrong. And I apologize.” And at 45 seconds in he takes an additional three seconds to say “I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never ever let you down.”
Is seven seconds sufficient to apologize for bragging of sexually assaulting women?
The bigger problem is not simply the seven seconds but the other one minute and twenty plus seconds. In that time Trump attempts to minimize his actions by referring to the recording as coming from a “decade old video”. He also deflects by spending time talking about the people he’s met on the campaign trail. Then he returns to minimization by saying: “Let’s be honest, we’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”
But the absolute worst comes at the end of the statement when he attempts to shift to blaming Bill and Hillary Clinton: “I’ve said some foolish things” he says, but “Bill Clinton has actually abused women. And Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, attacked, and intimidated his victims.”
Incredible: Trump brags of being a sexual predator and his “apology” concludes by attacking Hillary Clinton.
Note one more thing: while Swaggart publicly apologizes to his wife, Trump does not apologize to his wife for smugly bragging of sexually assaulting women.
When people like Michael Brown consider this statement to be an apology, they radically shift the meaning of contrition. Apparently now to be contrite all one needs is about a seven second statement complemented with an aggressive affect, a minimization of and deflection from one’s actions, and an overt attempt to shift the blame to others.
The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously lamented the rise of cheap grace in the Protestant church. One can hardly imagine what he would think of the CAE perversion of the concept of contrition. If Trump’s statement constitutes an apology then apologizing is now officially a meaningless action.