Forgiveness is an increasingly rare quality these days. We live in an age that seems to have lost the capacity to forgive. The demand instead is for justice in as harsh terms as possible, for the redressing of wrongs.
So when someone, especially a public figure, asks for forgiveness, often the response is a resounding "No! Let 'em get what they deserve." And that brings us to the curious case of Todd Akin.
Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was asked in an interview whether there should be any exceptions to proposed restrictions on abortion, including in cases of rape. He replied that women who are victims of rape – "legitimate rape," in his words – rarely get pregnant because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Akin's magical-thinking approach to biology and his discomfort at discussing a woman's reproductive system ("that whole thing") might be funny if we weren't talking about such a horrific crime.
The resulting political firestorm has been embarrassing and potentially catastrophic to his campaign and his party, so he has attempted damage control by apologizing for the remarks. And he took the further step of asking for forgiveness.
In his apology ad, Akin said rape is "an evil act" and admitted that rape can cause pregnancy. Here's the operative part of his mea culpa: "I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize. … I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault. I pray for them. … The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness."
Akin is known for his conservative Protestant beliefs, and notice how they are evident in these scripted remarks. He used the language of transgression: "evil" for the act under discussion and "wrong" and "mistake" for his own speech. He used the word "heart" twice, first joining it with "compassionate," a borrowing of biblical language that refers both to affinity and to the innermost self. He spoke of praying for victims. Akin tries to identify his transgression as a too-casual use of words, not callousness.
Finally, Akin makes a simple plea, again couched in biblical terms: he asks for forgiveness. In Akin's religious world, this represents the depth of sincerity. It is a confession of wrongdoing, a baring of the soul and an attempt to repair what has been torn.
It is easy to question this sincerity. Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post called it "a crocodile tear of an ad," and skeptics may ask whether Akin would have expressed such remorse if his political career were not suddenly in jeopardy.
Forgiveness is not always easily granted, depending on the offense. In this case, Akin made an outrageous statement that insulted the sensibilities of many women and the intellect of everyone. Some would not forgive Akin if their life depended on it.
My view is that Akin was sincere in his apology, but his sincerity can't hide a paternalistic view toward women. Voters can be indulgent and grant him forgiveness for his clumsiness and still decide that his judgments about women and reproductive choice should not be given a seat in the U.S. Senate.
It is a legitimate – to use Akin's word – public policy issue whether abortion should be permitted and under what circumstances, including in cases of rape. Akin has asserted his position, and his fate is in the hands of Missourians. He may receive forgiveness. Votes may be harder to come by.