The Art of the Public Grovel

Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Susan Wise Bauer
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Apology and confession are not the same,” Susan Wise Bauer announces with aphoristic brevity near the beginning of her book, The Art of the Public Grovel, on take-it-back speeches. “An apology is an expression of regret: I am sorry. A confession is an admission of fault: I am sorry because I did wrong. I sinned” (2). This distinction, initiating Bauer’s account of how American publics have come to parse authentic from inauthentic confessions, strikes me as useful, but under-theorized. Rhetorical scholars like James Murphy, for instance, have made clear that speech-act theory can spot richer possibilities in apologies than Bauer gives them credit for. But the chief virtue of Bauer’s study is less its conversancy with rhetorical theorizing of apologia than its shrewd grasp of how evangelical Christian norms have shaped contemporary civic conversations in the United States. “American democracy is not essentially evangelical,” notes Bauer in her conclusion, “but American evangelicalism is essentially democratic, so that its rituals translate seamlessly into rituals of American public life” (217).

Bauer doesn’t much discuss the classical rhetorical tradition, perhaps because of its emphasis on speeches of self-defense. As Adam Ellwanger notes in “Apology as Metanoic Performance” in Rhetorical Society Quarterly (2015), the classical apologia tended to respond to accusations defensively. My opponent accuses me of disloyalty to the gods, but nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast, American society has come to require leaders to avoid defensiveness or blame shifting, and instead to rectify their fault through penitent speech. Unless transgressing leaders “give up innocence and self-defense, taking moral responsibility for an evil act,” the American public tends to resist their return to leadership (3). I think there’s a case to be made, though, that the tango in the long rhetorical tradition between private and public expectations for discourse, is played out in Bauer’s book, too. For example, Socrates offers a private admission of guilt in the Phaedrus for sinning against the god of love, but he is better known for his public speech of self-defense in the Apology. Similarly, although Protestant Christianity often entails a turn towards private spirituality, this book shows how American evangelicals have come to insist on public confessions of leaderly wrongdoing. This insistence—so different from the Catholic emphasis on just-with-your-priest confession—enacts a characteristic American ambivalence towards authority. Especially in cases where an authority has sinned, “we want to submit, but only once we are reassured that the person to whom we submit is no better than we are” (3).

Bauer’s examination of public confessions after sexual transgression makes for juicier reading than works of such careful textual analysis usually afford. But breach speeches are more than titillating; they are also telling. As Josh Gunn has noted in “On Speech and Public Release” (Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 2010), breaking discourse expectations makes clear the operational rules of a given rhetorical culture. Howard Dean’s I-have-a-scream speech, for example, made it pretty clear what Americans will not accept in presidential candidate discourse. Similarly, Bauer locates rhetorical rules for confession by studying the consequences of speeches from Grover Cleveland, Aimee Sample McPherson, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Bill Clinton, and Bernard Law. Readers who wish to check and extend Bauer’s rhetorical criticism can delve into the 75 pages of pertinent confessions appended to the book’s main discussion. Analyzing how each person’s confession met or missed what speech-act theorists would call the felicity conditions of an effective confession, Bauer lays out the following criteria: (1) a declaration of one’s own fault; (2) an identification with the forces of good, struggling against predatory evil; and (3) a refusal to pull rank or assert authority. Her analysis demonstrates that meeting these conditions gives a once-wayward leader a remarkably good shot at “getting back to work for the American people,” as the saying goes. Confessing infelicitously, on the other hand, virtually ensures the leader’s demise.

I commend Bauer for her attention to religious dimensions in confessional speech, a focus which raises questions that might otherwise be overlooked in conventional scholarship on public rhetoric. For example, her book at least nods towards questions about the possibilities of grace in civic discourse. Public discourse today—from the presidential pulpit to the skits on Saturday Night Live—tend to reflect the cynicism of a world-weary democratic society. Accordingly, confession today is easily dismissed as a mere efficiency move, the shortest route back to good polling numbers. Worse, the sheer number of confessions seems to me to have increased in recent years, with the ironic consequence that politicians protest authenticity louder and louder as authenticity itself seems less and less possible. But perhaps that measure is unhelpful anyway. As Ellwanger notes “in the coercive context of the accusatory demand for apology, authenticity is a poor analytic tool: once one demands that someone apologize, it is unethical and absurd to reject that apology on the grounds that the apologist ‘didn’t really mean it’” (308). Ellwanger argues that confessions, so far from merely registering someone’s genuineness, enact a consequential deterrent for future transgressions. Although Bauer doesn’t state the concept that baldly, she does appear to agree: confessing one’s misdeeds in the public square does indeed accept a kind of informal punishment. But her insistence throughout the book on the terminology of forgiveness hints at possibilities beyond political effectiveness, possibilities for mercy and reconciliation in late-modern civic rhetoric.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Craig E. Mattson is professor of communication arts at Trinity Christian College.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan Wise Bauer is the author of The History of the Ancient World (Norton), the first part of a four-volume history of the world. Her other books include The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind (both Norton). She holds a PhD in American studies from the College of William & Mary.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.