When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced a swarming press corps and a national television audience in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, it took the teary-eyed Republican nearly five minutes to get to an agonizing six words: "I've been unfaithful to my wife."
More than a hundred miles to the southeast, Sanford's pastor, Greg Surratt of the evangelical Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., used four words to sum up his church's reaction: "Our hearts are breaking."
It was a painful day in the Palmetto State, as the governor admitted why he'd disappeared and remained incommunicado from his staff and family for five days: He'd gone to Argentina to visit a woman with whom he'd committed adultery over the past year. Sanford said his wife had known about the affair for five months, but didn't know he'd returned to South America last week.
Sanford struggled to maintain his composure as he talked about the selfishness of sin and apologized to a litany of people: His wife, four sons, extended family, friends, fellow lawmakers, citizens of South Carolina, and people of faith. He spoke of the "moral absolutes" of God's law, asked for forgiveness, and said, "All I can say is that I apologize."
Sanford added that a Bible study he joined in Washington, D.C., when he was a congressman called "C Street" has helped in the current situation: "I've been working with them."
The house on Capitol Hill's C Street has long served Washington as a home for lawmakers who want to commit to spiritual accountability through regular prayer and Bible studies. Current housemates include Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as well as Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). Wamp and Stupak were serving in the House at the same time as Sanford, but Stupak's spokesman would not comment on the matter. Another housemate is the recently disgraced Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who held a press conference announcing his own extramarital affair last week.
"It's a close-knit group," said Julie Fishman, executive assistant for Shuler.
As for the political fallout, Sanford said he would resign as head of the Republican Governors Association. (The RGA quickly named his replacement: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.) When a reporter followed up by asking if he would resign as governor, Sanford didn't respond.
The news is a blow to Republicans already reeling from Ensign's confession last week. The evangelical and prominent social conservative said he carried on an adulterous affair for eight months.
And as the GOP searched for leaders, many Republicans had hailed Sanford's strong stance against bank bailouts and President Obama's economic stimulus package. For a party struggling to find its footing and message, Sanford seemed sure-footed and on-message. Today, he was far from either.
The news was also a blow to conservative groups in the state: Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said Sanford had always been a strong advocate of the group's pro-family causes. He wasn't sure what would happen with Sanford now. "His ability to help us on some of our issues will certainly be compromised," said Smith. "The question is, will it be so compromised that he'll be ineffective to help us?"
But Smith spoke as much about the past as the future. He recalled the group's first annual dinner in 2003. Sanford had just been elected governor and spoke at the inaugural event. The group was announcing its Palmetto Marriage Project, aimed at protecting and promoting healthy marriages in the state. "I still have a tape of the remarks the governor made that night," said Smith. "And it's heartbreaking because here's somebody who was very committed to his marriage."
Back in Mount Pleasant, Sanford's pastor spoke of heartache, too. Surratt has pastored the church of 10,000 attendees for 20 years, and said he knows Sanford well. Sanford told me in February that he considers Seacoast his church home. When they're in Columbia, Sanford said his family attends Trinity Episcopal Church.
In his press conference today, Sanford said he'd been seeking the help of close friends to deal with his unfaithfulness, but Surratt declined to say whether he knew about Sanford's adultery before today. The pastor did say he would help the Sanford family moving forward if they ask for his help. "The truth of the gospel is that there is forgiveness for our sins," said Surratt. "And we can in turn ask for God's help to forgive and to get through situations where we've sinned."
Surratt said there's a sobering lesson for others, too: "I think we just have to be aware that we're all susceptible, and as much as we can, put safeguards in our lives and relationships. And when we see the consequences of a public fall like this, it tells all of us: It could be us."
WORLD Washington Bureau reporter Emily Belz contributed to this article.