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Michael Gerson: Northam could be forgiven. But that doesn't mean he should stay in office

With the continued refusal of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over his racially offensive past, we are presented again with a controversy about the nature and limits of public forgiveness.

One feature of this case is admirably distinctive. Following the revelation that Northam appeared in blackface during his medical training, the state Democratic Party and many national Democratic leaders chose consistency over hypocrisy by calling on the governor to leave office. They deserve credit for trying to police their own side.

Other issues are common to cases of this kind.

First, there is a matter of age. We generally show leniency to minors on the theory that they are still in the process of forming their character. This leads to an argument that strangely echoes the abortion debate. What is the moment of moral viability? Is it 21? Where does that leave the vicious misogynist who is 19? Is the line at 18? Where does that leave the 19-year-old lout who eventually learns to treat women with more respect?

These answers may vary by offense or by case. But some moral distinction, while arbitrary, is necessary. Northam engaged in racially offensive behavior at the ripe age of 24, leaving him with little excuse by anyone’s standard.

Second, we are often told to measure morality against the standard of the times. Suppose a governor dropped acid as a youth in 1968? Or a future governor illegally uses THC in some form in 2019? Too demanding a standard in such matters might inculpate the better part of a generation.

But what of Northam donning blackface in 1984? (Not to mention Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, who recently admitted doing the same in 1980.) I attended college in the 1980s. It was not the 1930s. It is hard to conceive that 20 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the news had not yet reached Eastern Virginia Medical School. Northam fails by this standard as well.

Third, we often take the sincerity of an apology into account. In Northam’s case, a clear apology accompanied by a resignation would have been more credible. Northam first said he was deeply sorry for appearing in a racist yearbook photo but then, a day later, claimed he wasn’t actually in it. He then admitted wearing blackface that same year in a dance contest. Such explanational dance is not usually the sign of sincerity.

Fourth, the nature of the offense matters. And on racial prejudice, the issue is sometimes complex. It is impossible to avoid the question: Should he or she have known better? An adult dressing as a Native American chief for Halloween in 2019? Bad judgment that may betray racial bias. An adult putting on blackface in 1984? What in God’s name could such a benighted fool have been thinking? It was and is raw racism and a pernicious form of bullying the vulnerable.

In the political realm, there is one more matter at stake: the health of public institutions. The office of Virginia governor has influence in part because it is respected. And this means that public purposes are undermined when the office is demeaned.

Is there any doubt that Northam’s background of extreme and disturbing racial insensitivity demeans his office? No doubt at all. At the very least it communicates to African-American children in Virginia that their governor was somehow immune to the lessons of the civil rights movement decades after it took place.

The reputations of political institutions are everywhere in tatters. We have, after all, a president who exemplifies misogyny and encourages racial and ethnic resentment for political purposes. And these failures are implicitly blessed by many leaders on the religious right, who will apparently swallow any character failure as long as the right kind of judges are appointed. It is a form of hypocrisy that achieves an unholy twofer: lowering the standards of our public life while undermining the standing of religious institutions.

Does this conclusion lack in Christian forgiveness? Only to those who don’t understand it. For the individual, sincere repentance leads to divine forgiveness with scandalous absoluteness. Murderers, rapists and racists can be washed as clean as the day they were born. That is Christian orthodoxy. But this did not prevent the founder of Christianity from routinely confronting the corruption of religious institutions and religious leaders in the strongest terms, comparing them to whitewashed tombs and a pit of snakes.

Anyone — including any politician — can be completely forgiven by God for anything. That does not make them worthy of holding an office that depends on the respect of the governed.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.