Why Public Confession Speaks to a Secular America

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Ms. Bauer is the author of The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton University Press, 2008).

In early July of 1884, the Democratic National Convention nominated Grover Cleveland for the presidency of the United States. Just days after the convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke shocking news: Cleveland had seduced a helpless woman, made her pregnant, and then forced her to put the baby into an orphanage.

Cleveland’s political platform was built on the foundation of his personal uprightness.  Now his greatest strength had suddenly crumbled.  But Cleveland refused to speak of the matter.  Even when crowds of Republican voters greeted him by chanting, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” he held his tongue. 

But in November, Cleveland--still refusing to confess to any wrongdoing--was elected to the presidency.  His Democratic supporters taunted his detractors by adding a line to the chant: “Gone to the White House.  Ha, ha, ha!”

A century later, President Clinton was forced to confess to his sexual fling with Monica Lewinsky not once, but three separate times.  Louisiana senator David Vitter confessed and apologized. And the list goes on: “The minute a transgression occurs, be it small or large, we wait for penitence,” a CNN reporter mused.  “It’s the other shoe that needs to drop before we can move on.” 

The contrast is an odd one.  The voters who put Cleveland in office did not insist that Cleveland repent in public.  Yet voters today, in an America with a much greater tolerance for sexual escapades, demand confession.  

In American Protestantism, confession of sin has always had a public aspect.  We can trace this back to Puritan days, during which public confession of sin was a method of regaining God’s favor when times were bad.  Less than twenty years after the founding of New Haven, Connecticut, bad crops and disease impelled John Davenport to announce, “When people who have been formerly under the effects of Gods displeasure do turn unto him with unfeigned Repentance, God will certainly turn unto them in mercy.”  Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivalists also encouraged believers to confess to their sin in the presence of their Christian brothers and sisters; this confession would refresh their faith and bring them (in the words of Jonathan Edwards) “new, remarkable comfort.”

But for several centuries, these confessions of sin took place only within church or revival meeting, not on a wider public stage. 

The new media of radio and television eventually provided that wider stage--but only after a decades-long struggle.   At the beginning of the twentieth century, revivalist preaching was blocked from most of the national radio networks.  The theological debates of the 1920s had divided American Protestants into two groups: fundamentalists were convinced that revivalist evangelism, leading to confession of sin and personal conversion, was essential to salvation; mainline believers were much more likely to concentrate on social action and reform. 

Both groups saw radio and television as particularly powerful vehicles for the preaching of their messages.    But they were competing for limited space.  The national networks did not accept paid religious programming; instead they set aside a certain number of “public service” hours for religious broadcasts.  

In 1927, a committee of mainline ministers recommended to the new National Broadcasting Company that only “the recognized outstanding leaders of the several faiths” be allowed to use these hours.  Their goal, according to mainline minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, was to keep fundamentalist, revivalist preachers, “representing a type of Christianity which you and I do not believe in,” off the air.

Fundamentalist preachers, blocked from making use of national airtime, went directly to local stations.  Each of these stations covered only a single geographical area--but unlike the national networks, they were willing to hand over large chunks of airtime in exchange for cash.  Evangelists William Branham, Rex Humbard, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Oral Roberts all bought their airtime with donations (and became experts at vigorous fundraising).  

Meanwhile, mainline leaders decided that it was inappropriate for mainline programming to buy air time: religious programming, concluded the National Council of Churches in 1958, would be “debased” if sold to the highest bidder.

And then the ground abruptly shifted.  In 1960, the FCC ruled that networks could fulfill their responsibility to provide a certain amount of public service programming by selling air time.  It was no longer necessary to make this time available free of charge. 

Given that mainline denominations had come out strongly against on-air fundraising, this left mainline ministers without any good way to pay for the airtime which they had previously gotten for free.  But fundamentalist, evangelical preachers were accustomed to paying their own way by raising funds from their listeners.  By the end of the 1960s, evangelical religious programming--which not only asked listeners to confess their sins, but often showed them doing so live--dominated the airwaves.  Billy Graham’s televised crusades alone featured thousands of confessing sinners, streaming to the front of enormous venues such as Madison Square Garden.  The sight of sinners owning up to their faults became increasingly familiar to a wider and wider audience.

At the same time, a secular form of confession had developed in America. 

In 1906, the Emmanuel Church of Boston sponsored a physician-led meeting for “neurasthenics,” patients who had been diagnosed with “nerve diseases” that resisted medical treatment.   Similar meetings and classes sprang up all through the United States.  The “Emmanuel Movement” was the first organized American attempt to bring psychotherapy under the umbrella of medicine; over the next decade, it gained momentum from the need to treat traumatized World War I veterans.

  From the earliest days of the Emmanuel movement, psychotherapy was practiced in groups.  Group therapy was based on the idea that human identity, the “social self,” was formed by our interactions with those around us.  Therapy groups were intended to function as ideal mini-societies, healing the rifts in personality caused by earlier social influences.  Psychotherapist L. Cody Marsh adopted as his slogan, “By the crowd they have been broken; by the crowd they shall be healed.” 

Like the evangelical worshipper, the patient in the therapy group was faced with the need for confession: admit that your former way of life is unhealthy, so that you can accept the healing of the group.  Even the therapist was encouraged to confess his own shortcomings, in order to demonstrate that he was a true member of the group. 

And like revivalist preaching, psychotherapy soon took to the airwaves.  In the 1940s, the National Association for Mental Health began to produce a national radio drama series called “Hi, Neighbor!”  In these radio dramas, psychiatrists demonstrated how therapeutic techniques could be put to use in schools and community centers; by 1950, the episodes had been broadcast over ten thousand times in 450 cities.  In 1958, psychologist Joyce Brothers hosted the first therapy program on television.  Viewers of the “Dr. Joyce Brothers Show” sent in letters detailing their problems; Brothers analyzed the problems in public and suggested solutions.  In just a few months, Brothers was receiving over a thousand letters a week.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, clinical psychologists Toni Grant and David Viscott began to host syndicated radio therapy programs in which, for the first time, listeners were encouraged to call in and confess their shortcomings, in person, on the air.  Their broadcasts were soon joined by a host of other call-in psychotherapy shows.

 In essence, radio therapy invited callers to include a vast radio audience in a massive group therapy session.  However, the technical limitations of radio meant that the “group” itself (the audience) was invisible and, for the most part, silent.

Television proved a more natural home for group therapy.  In 1967, Phil Donahue (who had previously hosted a radio talk show) pioneered a new format: a television talk show based on the principles of group therapy.  The audience members of the Donahue show were encouraged to react to the confessions of the guests and to confess problems of their own. 

The success of Donahue spawned an entire genre of television talk.  Maury Povich and Geraldo used the same format with an even stronger emphasis on uncovering secrets and eliciting confessions.  Oprah Winfrey brought the form to the height of its popularity.  Like the leader of a therapy group, she too confessed: to struggles with food, to an addiction to cocaine.

Both religious and secular confession had now taken to the airwaves:  The result: by the beginning of Clinton’s presidency, public confession had become a commonplace and familiar sight, even to Americans with no religious commitment.  Confessional religious programming saturated radio and TV; talk shows filled the airwaves with yet more confession.

When David Vitter of Louisiana was accused, in 2007, of using the services of a D.C. madam and her prostitutes, he instantly confessed his wrongdoing, calling it sinful and taking responsibility.  His action seemed not only normal but praiseworthy to an American public which has become accustomed to confession.   Public confession has moved from the revival tent to the TV screen, from the therapy group to the talk-show stage--and in doing so, has increasingly taken its place as a secular public ritual.

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Raul A Garcia - 11/12/2008

Hucksterism is bad, whether by religious or non-religious persons. Think of the money wasted on astrology, tarot, fraudulent weight-loss products, etc. ad nauseaum. Now to proscribe their activities becomes Nazi-like and unconstitutional. How many political parties are you going to prohibit? Change the channel I always say. Or better yet, turn off the TV, or even more revolutionary, don't listen or watch any commercials.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/10/2008

Absolutely right, Ms. Robertson!
How kids can study and appreciate science, when this kind of religious garbage is hammered down by those crooks into children's soft skulls?
No wonder this country's teenagers are far behind their peers in all other industrialized countries.
Forget about kids - adults are not much better; just listen to our current President...

Nancy Robertson - 11/10/2008

I'd like to see all fundamentalist religious programming shut down. I think it should be made illegal for these hucksters to raise money on TV. They do a great disservice to our society by spreading dangerous nonsense like Creationism, faith healing and the Rapture to a gullible public.

Nicholas Clifford - 11/10/2008

Interesting, particularly the linking of public confession to a kind of American Protestantism. But I would like to know more the emergence of public confession as opposed to private, secret confession, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and occasionally Anglican style. Public confession can, after all, bring certain rewards in the here and now (money, power, publicity, etc.) that are denied to the practitioners of private confession.
And are we talking about the United States alone? How far do people in other societies, which owe nothing to American Protestantism, go public about their misdeeds, and what are the reasons?
Perhaps the answers are in the book.

Raul A Garcia - 11/10/2008

How about anybody admiting to any wrongful act, sexual or otherwise? That is another question. How often we see people pleasing innocence/not-guilty when faced with overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing!I believe this speaks volumes of our moral descent.