You likely know the adage “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but contrary to popular opinion, it does not come from the Bible. It’s from St. Augustine of Hippo, Gandhi’s 1929 autobiography and probably a sermon or two you have heard.
The idea draws a thin line between people and their deeds, and it raises profound philosophical, theological and ethical questions. Do our actions define who we are? Can someone do something bad but not be a bad person? Dividing people from their actions hinges on concepts of repentance and forgiveness, complex ideas to be sure, especially in a society underpinned by Judeo-Christian values.
In politics, the same distinction roughly demarcates the boundary of acceptable discourse. Certainly that line has been crossed before; but in general, calling out someone’s bad behavior is fair game while calling him or her a bigot is not. In our arguably puritanical society, actions are facts, but a person’s character is subjective opinion.
Recently, Donald Trump minced no words about the sinner: “Hillary Clinton is a bigot!” By contrast, Clinton recently gave a speech that calmly and intently outlined sins of bigotry but she never labeled her opponent an outright bigot.
Trump and his supporters openly disdain political correctness, so telling them what’s in bounds and what’s out may prove fruitless, but when more of his past dubious behaviors surface, Trump himself might benefit from learning how to separate a person linguistically from his or her misdeeds.
Clinton, on the other hand can find the semantic demarcation with her eyes closed. That’s not her problem. Her problem is that the American people are sick and tired of politicians who play with ethical boundaries. Her problem stems from the complex issues of repentance, forgiveness and love. In Annie Karni’s August 24 article in Politico, she describes “Clinton’s core belief that she did nothing wrong.”
Undoubtedly, we will find out whether Clinton broke the law. Either way, she needs to “repent.” I tell my 8-year-old daughter, “You have to apologize if you hurt someone, even if you’re right.” Hillary may be “right” that she didn’t break any laws, but she has hurt Americans’ dwindling hopes that there might be a good and decent politician out there somewhere.
The likelihood of a true, authentic and convincing apology from Clinton is probably as likely as Trump learning how to choose his words carefully, but the naïf in me can’t help dreaming of change. I believe that the key is authenticity. As an artist, I maintain that audiences can sense authenticity in a performance even if it looks or sounds exactly like a performance without. In my deepest heart of hearts, I believe, too, that the large majority of Americans can sense authenticity and be moved by it.
I have found both candidates authentic at different times. In Trump’s acceptance speech, I felt in him an empathy that Clinton supporters probably don’t believe exists. In Clinton’s recent Reno speech, I felt an authentic concern for America and its future.
The only way either of these candidates will improve their unfavorable numbers (hardly a noble goal) is to suck it up, dig deep, and make the hard move. We voters can and do love the sinner once that sinner’s remorseful words match better behavior. That’s what we want. That’s what they need to give us.
David Tang is the Director of Music at Sharon Presbyterian Church. firstname.lastname@example.org.