Less than two weeks passed between the time I first heard the word “coronavirus” until I was on a chartered Delta flight leaving Chile with more than 200 other missionaries. My 20-month break from our nation’s political circus was refreshing. But if I’ve learned anything from my transition back into American life, it is that forgiveness has a wide range of meaning in our culture and politics.
On one end of the spectrum is the real, down-to-earth, and sincere kind of forgiveness. Of this, John McCain was a good example. He had his faults, but he also forgave. Prior to his death he even asked his political rival Barack Obama to speak at his funeral. It was a great reminder that politics doesn’t always have to be nasty.
At the other end of the spectrum we find a more politically charged version of forgiveness. It allows one to pick and choose who is worthy of pardon. It is easy, tribal, willful and most of all selective. We are great at holding grudges in this country, but even better at selective forgiveness.
Utah has seen many examples of selective forgiveness thanks to people like Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee and Jason Chaffetz. Regardless of how harshly they criticized Trump during the campaign, they’ve now joined Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and others as Trump’s most willing and anxious pardoners. John McCain never caved, so Trump badmouthed him to the grave and beyond.
The good news is that Utah has a current senator with a bit of a spine. Although Mitt Romney has often sacrificed political conviction in favor of political ambition, he has not been one to waver on his more deeply rooted moral convictions. Even flip-flop Mitt hasn’t resorted to selective forgiveness. And many — including those of his faith — blast him for it.
Ironically, two former presidential nominees of the Republican party are now seen by many as Judas-like betrayers to the modern-day GOP. But that is how selective forgiveness works. And for Trump fans, McCain and Romney don’t qualify for forgiveness at all.
The narrative now surrounding them is that they were pathetic losers who couldn’t beat Obama and weren’t war heroes either (Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, once accused Mitt Romney of dodging the draft by going on a mission). Regardless, one thing is sure: Graham, Chaffetz and Cruz all talked the talk during the campaign, but Romney and McCain walked the walk when it really counted.
During this world crisis Trump’s incompetence and indecency are not only more apparent but more dangerous than ever. And yet, as problematic as Trump has been, he has exploited an even greater problem within us: a predisposition to offer selective forgiveness and the ignorance to see it as a sign of strength rather than weakness.
Not even Trump is responsible for that. In overcoming selective forgiveness McCain and Romney have given us a decent example. But in the end, we ourselves will have to decide to what point we are willing to make excuses for every scandal, prop up every alternative fact, and temper every tweet all in the name of forgiveness.
In reality, selective forgiveness is not really forgiveness at all. Instead, it merely exempts wrongdoers from consequences and enables bad behavior. It grows not out of penitence and humility; rather, it is born of denial and self-deceit. And those who give are as guilty as those who receive. In other words, to move beyond it, we would have to condemn ourselves first and foremost. But to do so would be to break rule number one of selective forgiveness.
Addison Graham, Kansas City, Mo., is a former student at Jordan High School and is set to attend Brigham Young University in the fall.