Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Between 1969 and 2002, three American politicians (Edward Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton) and three ordained clergymen (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Cardinal Bernard Law) made public confessions of wrongdoing to national audiences. These public confessions reveal that Protestant religious culture, particularly the neoevangelical culture of the twentieth century, had changed the expectations of many who did not consider themselves within neoevangelicalism's sphere of influence. By tracing the historical development of public confession from its medieval roots to its use in twentieth-century entertainment programming, this dissertation shows that Protestant confessional practice affected both secular American political discourse and American Catholic expectations. Examination of these six confessions further shows that, in order to survive the ordeal of public confession, leaders must identify themselves with the weak and dispossessed, place themselves on the right side of a holy war against evil, and give followers the power to take part in the cleansing ritual of forgiveness. This study concludes that, by the end of the twentieth century, Americans who were neither Protestant nor neoevangelical had nevertheless come to expect a Protestant ritual of public confession from erring leaders, and also demanded a role in the task of forgiveness and restoration.



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