Until Friday, when Tiger Woods stood up in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and apologized for his sexual infidelities, the American public confession was a Christian rite. From President Grover Cleveland, who likely fathered a child out of wedlock, to Ted Haggard, who resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals after allegations that he had sex with a male prostitute, our politicians and preachers have bowed and scraped in Christian idioms. Jimmy Carter spoke of “adultery in my heart.” Jimmy Swaggart spoke of “my sin” and “my Savior.” In any case, the model derives from evangelical Christianity ”” the revival and the altar call. You confess you are a sinner. You repent of your sins. You turn to Christ to make yourself new.
Woods was caught in a multimistress sex scandal after Thanksgiving. In January Brit Hume, channeling his inner evangelist on Fox News Sunday, urged Woods to “turn to the Christian faith.” “He’s said to be a Buddhist,” Hume said. “I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.” Woods in effect told Hume Friday thanks but no thanks.
Part of Woods’ carefully prepared statement followed the time-honored formula that historian Susan Wise Bauer has referred to as the “art of the public grovel.” Though he did not sob like Swaggart, Woods seemed ashamed and embarrassed. He took responsibility for his actions, which he characterized as “irresponsible and selfish.” He apologized, not just to his wife and children but also to his family and friends, his business partners, his fans, and the staff and sponsors of his foundation. And he was not evasive. Whereas President Clinton confessed in 1998 to having an “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky and took potshots at the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, Woods said, “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.”
But this was not your garden-variety confession. Though Woods spoke of religion, he did not mention Jesus or the Bible, sin or redemption. He gave us a Buddhist mea culpa instead.