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CHURCH LEADERS CODDLE CLINTON

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy 202-986-1440 September 10, 1998


It's one of the most famous Old Testament stories. The great King David commits adultery with Bathsheeba and then sends her soldier husband to his death at the front lines so as to reserve the beautiful woman for himself. The prophet Nathan confronts his monarch over the sin with the indicting words, "Thou are the man!"

Clerical defenders of Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica scandal have taken to likening the president to the Hebrew king. David, whom Clinton supposedly resembles, was a godly man who momentarily fell from grace but dramatically repented, seeking public and divine forgiveness.

But largely missing from responses to the Clinton scandals by religious leaders has been any Nathan-like denunciation of Clinton's adultery, deception, and abuse of power. A few have been critical. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson, who are as well known for their conservative politics as for their Christian ministries, have not surprisingly condemned Clinton's conduct.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention has called for Clinton's resignation. Leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals shunned a White House meeting of religious leaders to avoid appearing supportive of Clinton. And even a few prominent liberal clergy have expressed their chagrin over the sex scandal, including the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington and the chaplain of Harvard University.

But the most prominent religious voices commenting on the Clinton scandals have been supportive. Jesse Jackson has hardly missed a televised opportunity (CBS This Morning, Good Morning America, Larry King Live) to defend Clinton as a noble president whose human failings should not distract from his more important defense of liberal political programs. "We have this awesome case of Samson with all of this strength, and yet the special prosecutor, I suppose, would have locked him up," Jackson intoned, as he seemed to compare Clinton and Monica to Samson and Delilah.

Almost equally available to the media, as been the pastor of the United Methodist church that the Clintons attend. "King David did something that was much worse than anything President Clinton is alleged to have done," said J. Philip Wogaman. "And King David, if I read my Bible correctly, was not impeached." He praised Clinton as a "man of great depth and vitality and service to the country."

In a not very Nathan-like assertion, Wogaman has told reporters that sexual misconduct does not necessarily make a leader immoral. He has said morality should be based more on concern for the poor, racial justice, and world peace. A prominent advocate of liberalizing his own denomination's doctrines about sexuality, Wogaman told The New York Times that sexual fidelity was merely a "cultural expression" that in some cases has become a form of "idolatry."

Joan Brown Campbell, who leads the National Council of Churches, has been no less supportive of the President, who has frequently invited her to White House meetings and on international state visits. "Our long experience in pastoral care has taught us the wisdom of protecting personal life from public display," she urged. "The private lives of our public leaders are best left private or we will have none allowed to lead."

The most organized religious defense of Clinton has been "An Appeal for Healing" signed by numerous clerics who urge quick forgiveness of the President's misdeeds. "It is now a time for forgiveness and healing. Governments err and presidents make mistakes; we are all sinners." The statement concluded: "It is time once again to be led by our president."

Endorsers of the statements included Campbell and Wogaman, evangelist Tony Campolo, several black church leaders, a prominent New York rabbi, and the head of the Interfaith Alliance, a Religious Left counterpart to the Christian Coalition. Most of the church leaders who signed could be called oldline Social Gospel advocates, who stress social justice more emphatically than traditional religious dogma.

Sharing that theological emphasis with them is Rev. Paul Sherry, who leads the 1.4 million member United Church of Christ, the nation's most liberal mainline denomination. But his response to the Clinton scandals has been more insightful. "Both the president's actions and the investigation have distracted our government from its most central concerns: caring for the poor, justice for the oppressed, protection of the environment and the promotion of peace," Sherry said.

Sherry seems to realize what his fellow liberal clerics have not: the biggest threat to their political success is not President's conservative critics. It has become the President himself. Democrats are likely to see their minority in Congress shrivel further in November, thanks to Clinton's indiscretions. And the next president will not likely be a friend to causes dear to the Religious Left: abortion and "gay" rights, increased environmental regulation, racial quotas, and welfare retrenchment.

Even with his repentance, the remainder of King David's reign was plagued by social upheaval, war and political decline. Clinton has been far less contrite than David, and his fall may be no less calamitous to his staunchest political and religious defenders, who shunned the role of Nathan.


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