A Cynic's Guide to Public Redemption

Barry McBride on Ben Roethlisberger's sudden public adoption of faith.


Like so many before him, the politician had been caught, literally, with his pants down, and with a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Married, a father, and powerful, he quickly found his extra-marital exploits the subject of headlines and rumors, with cameras tracking his every move, inflaming the furor by picking apart everything he said or didn't say.

Choosing to fight back through public relations rather than a sincere desire to acknowledge his mistakes, the politician used the media's desire to track his every move as a tool to paint himself as being nothing like the scandal clearly showed he was.

Directing his political resurrection flawlessly, he made sure to make a very public appearance at church during the height of the news storm.

Coming into and out of church, he carried a Bible.

Carrying a Bible into and out of church may be more common within some religious circles than others, but it's uncommon within those I've encountered, to say the least. You simply don't need to bring along a Bible since materials to follow along with that day's sermon are available to you. I know some very devout people, but none that I can recall has ever had to bring a Bible to church. They keep them at home, for reading, for reference, or for use during moments of religious contemplation.

But he felt a need to bring along a Bible, in full view of the cameras.

The Bible as prop.

I don't know much about theatre, but I'm pretty sure props are there to fool an audience into thinking that they're looking at something more than a completely barren, empty stage.

* * *

Cynicism isn't the most attractive human quality, but no one can say that, at least among my fellow Cleveland Browns fans, it hasn't been well-earned. In the nearly forty-six years since our last Championship we've been disappointed by athletes in just about every way imaginable.

Our skeptical and somewhat pessimistic view of the world was on full display earlier this week, as news reports started emerging from Pittsburgh's sycophantic local football media that Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had discovered religion after a summer filled with legal and league trouble caused (allegedly) by his own brutish behavior.

The timing was, seemingly, ideal for the "reformed" Roethlisberger to be introduced to the public. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback found himself just one or two days away from the league's decision regarding a suspension for his mis-conduct, which he wanted reduced from six games to as few as two or three. The timing of Roethlisberger's public statements seemed to be, let's say, fortuitous.

But that's not the case at all, the quarterback told the dutiful local press: "I'm not going to be going out there and trying to push it on people and make it seem like all of a sudden I am this great person", Roethlisberger said. "That's not who I am. That's not what religion and faith is all about. You're not going to see me getting cross tattoos and wearing cross necklaces. That's not what it's about."

Which, of course, is why he's talking to the media about it.

In my dark cynical heart, I suspect it's not that hard to find Jesus. After all, if you can find the door labelled "Public Relations disaster", it seems you just have to go one door further to find Jesus, introduce yourself, and then exit through the door that says "Public Apology".

After that, well, our attentions spans aren't all that good these days, and you can count on us losing track.

* * *

Physics tells us that it's impossible to create something out of nothing. Every time someone raids the religious penny jar to save themselves, it takes a little something away.

Replay this over. Over and over. Combine intrusive 24x7 journalism with the constancy of human frailty, and you have the pubic resurrection template for the age of media:

10 Act like a caveman
20 Get caught
30 Get saved through (Religion / Rehab / Jail Time / Love of Spouse) 
40 Proclaim your own redemption
50 Hope for forgiveness and forgetfulness
60 Return to what you were doing
70 Go to 10

The infinite loop of redemption. The public's innocence used and then taken from us, bit by bit, until cynicism is all that's left.

The politician, of course, survived. He was even re-elected by a wide margin. But we were all left a little poorer. We've been getting a little poorer, bit by bit, I suspect, since the phrase "pubic relations" was created by one of Sigmund Freud's relatives , Edward Bernays, in the years following World War 1. Everything in the public eye, from politicians, to entertainers to corporations to sports figures, it seems, is coated over with a thick glossy coat of public relations that hides the truth underneath.

* * *

I made a snarky remark about creationism in front of two people who I didn't know belonged to faiths where the biblical story of creation was important.

Not getting the knowing chuckles I expected, one of them asked me: "What do you believe in, Barry?"

"Science", I told them. "I believe in science".

It is 2006.

* * *

It might take a couple of years, but it will feel like minutes. The sensation is stunning and then - BANG - you're in it, and asking yourself where your life went.

You've gone from wanted to unwanted. From "King of the World" to "The World would be Better Off Without Me".

Not as much energy as you would expect is necessary for the transition. It's pretty easy to pull off, honestly.

I guess it wouldn't be hard to make a graph with "How Much Value You See in Yourself" on one axis, and a variety of candidates for the other. Age might be one, fame might be another. Money, I know, is a third. All those things that we decide measure our own worth.

The human mind is an amazing thing, a big blob of chemicals and a matrix of nerve endings we're really just beginning to understand. It is at once capable of unlimited inventiveness and creativity and also capable of nearly unlimited depths of despair.

Count yourself lucky if you've never explored the latter. In those depths, reality can shift around you. The mind focuses not on what's right with the world, but what's wrong with it, to the exclusion of all else, and you can find yourself lost in a darkness where no light can penetrate.

* * *

My wife was well on her way to her Master's Degree in Theology. She had given up her corporate career to raise kids and dedicate her life to following what her faith had told her was the right path. She had been to a lot of church services on her own over the years, a product of her husband's disinterest in religion, and the recent career change that kept him busy on Sundays.

She had no office to work out of at the time, so she left her reference materials laying about our home.

It was the middle of the night and my mind was off spelunking the Cavern of NoSleepTonight. Or maybe it was the Cave of HowCouldIHaveBeenSoStupid. Whatever it was, it was dark in there and I had good cause to suspect that my rope was not longer hooked into rocks above me.

I picked up one of her books and started reading. I turned to the section that interested me the most based on what little I knew about it. It was titled "The Book of Mark".

It is 2007. Our story will stop there, but it doesn't end there. Life is more complex than that.

* * *

It would be a reasonable guess that Ben Roethlisberger and I have absolutely nothing in common other than belonging to the same species and being located in roughly the same area of the planet. Well, we're both sort of stupid-looking, but other than that, I'm guessing that we could probably chat for only about 20 seconds before running out of common interests.

Plus, of course, in all honesty, he plays quarterback for the Steelers, so I'm strongly inclined to not like him very much.

Speaking bluntly, I've always had a hunch that Ben Roethlisberger's greatest inner turmoil prior to this summer was whether or not he should have mushrooms on his Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. He always seemed to me the sort of person who would never have a care in the world, or much spare room in the attic to carry them around.

But I'm willing to put my hard-earned cynicism on hold for a while. Not only because I know first-hand that faith in something greater can be a hand that lifts you up in times of need, but also because the teachings ask us to try to invest more in the inner person than the outward appearances.

At the same time, I worry about the permanence of changes in people, like myself and the Steelers quarterback, who grasp onto faith only during times of intense personal need.

If Mr. Roethlisberger truly believes what he says and what he claims to be reading, then that's a great thing. It helps all of us when a person who had been acting only out of self-interest learns to put other people first. I can't promise to ever be a fan of an opposing team's quarterback, but I can promise to give him the benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, if the quarterback is simply using religion as a prop in his public rehabilitation, then he is just the latest to raid the religious penny jar, leaving us all a little poorer. I and others will remember his words, just as vividly I remember the Bible being used as a prop nearly 20 years ago.

When an athlete makes these sort of declarations to the public, the cost goes up. If he turns his life around, we're all a little richer. If he simply goes back to what he did before, we all pay a small price in the decreased faith we have in our institutions.

The stakes have been raised. He's gone all in. We're watching, and so are young Steeler fans who have put their faith in him.

The next step is up to you, Mr. Roethlisberger.

Barry McBride is a one-time useful member of society who now runs the Orange and Brown Report. He hates it when his email client mistakes email messages for spam, so please contact him via the OBR contact form, via Twitter, or on the forums.

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