345. "America Needs Secular Redemption" Newsday (February 19, 2001), pp A25-26.

Imagine that you are offered your dream job. To get it, though, you have to tell all--any time you did not pay the IRS all you owed; any time you told a dirty joke to your secretary or--hired an illegal immigrant. You know that if you mention any of this, you may as well kiss the job goodbye. You are likely to be tempted (at least I fear I would be) to try to get away with it, by lying to those responsible for checking you out. Now you have multiplied the original "sin" a hundred times. There must be a better way.

Before I go on to draw a lesson from what just happened to Linda Chavez--and which is very likely to happen to others before too long--let me rush to say that I shed no tears over her political demise. I do not share several of her views and I was particularly offended by her hypocrisy. She had previously chided Zoe Baird for a similar violation. But if you favor digging up past dirt to block the appointments of public officials or judges you disagree with, please note that those you do favor will be done-in the same way. And if we do not want to sharply curtail the list of those who are willing to be enter public service, something must be done.

My solution begins with borrowing a page from religious traditions. Many of these draw a distinction between major transgressions and all the other stuff. Catholicism, for instance, distinguishes between mortal and venal sins. Judaism has 613 dos and don'ts but only three for which you should allow yourself to be killed rather than violate them. A secular adaptation might entail informing candidates for public office that if they committed no high crimes but did commit only a few (say less than three) misdemeanors--padded their expense accounts?--these will be noted in their record but not disqualify them. Lying about them, though, surely would.

The other lesson from religions is more important: They make room for repentance. Translated, a public figure not yet under consideration, should be able to come forward and declare their transgressions, express remorse, and make amends (say pay the taxes due and a penalty). Before New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman ran successfully for office in 1993, she disclosed that she had employed an undocumented worker. Not only was she elected, but so far, consideration for her to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency does not seem to have been affected.

Remorse is significant because any violation of the law, especially by a public figure, damages society twice. First of all, there are the effects of the violation itself, the maid whose Social Security account is left short. Second, there is the insult to the laws of the land, to our values ensconced in them, that employees should not be exploited. Making amends takes care only of the first injury. Showing that you are truly sorry by publicly paying homage to laws and values that have been offended helps to mend some harm inflicted by the second injury.

Such civic repentance best occurs before anybody has a direct payoff waiting for them, in the form of a much coveted job. Otherwise we may well doubt the sincerity of the remorse and public protestations. Maybe once a year, during Easter, Atonement Day or on New Year's Eve, we all--led by those who aspire to public life--should review our past and come forward.

Indeed we may well want to extend this idea to our convicted felons. Currently there is no way for them to repent and be restored to full membership in society. In many states legal rights lost are never restored, even if the offender has served his or her full term, shown true remorse, and led an exemplary life ever after. Moreover, once an ex-con, always an ex-con. The record that follows one like a shadow can not be erased no matter how good a life one leads.

Being unable to become full citizens and to regain full membership in the community, ex-cons have less of an incentive to lead an exemplary life than if there were clearly set conventions for civic repentance. And they tend to hang around in parts of our community and work in jobs in which being an ex-con is not considered a demerit; indeed, it is sometimes a point of honor.

If it were up to me, after a given period, say 15 years, if an ex-con's record is clean, I would restore his full legal rights and sequester his records (but not expunge them). In this way, these records would not pop up every time he is screened for a job or college admission, but would be available should he be convicted again, before sentencing. Repeat offenders should be sentenced more severely than those who transgressed only once.

While 15 years may be too long, it is essential that the period of repentance not be a short one. In discussions of repentance--religious and civic--much attention is paid to remorse and making amends (or paying one's dues). But the third element, often overlooked, may well be the most important one: showing that one has restructured one's life by not committing new crimes. Otherwise one may repent to wipe the slate clean, only to start all over again. This is no way to keep our laws and mores intact.

The need to lead a straight life, especially once one has admitted to wrongdoing, is the reason I favor noting in a public official's records whatever misdeeds they have come forward and revealed. While these, if venal, should not disqualify them from serving, they should hang over them like a sword: one more strike and you are out.

Amitai Etzioni's most recent book, Next: The Road to the Good Society, has just been published by Basic Books.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052