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Wogamen's New Book More a Testimony to Pastoral Failure

President's Pastor Defends His Famous Parishioner

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 17, 1998

Three days before the U.S. House of Representatives is to vote on impeachment, President Clinton's pastor convened a Washington press conference. Rev. J. Philip Wogaman wanted to defend his most famous parishioner. And he wanted to unveil his newly published book, From the Eye of the Storm: A Pastor to the President Speaks Out.

Unless occasional appearances on television and radio talk shows qualify as the "eye of the storm," the book's title is probably exaggerated. Beyond making himself the President's most reliable clerical supporter, Wogaman does not appear to have played a central role in Bill Clinton's sexual and legal struggles of this year.

He recounts a phone call from the President and some sermons he delivered before Bill and Hillary at his Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. He briefly acknowledges that he is one of three pastors who are part of an "accountability group" for the fallen chief executive. But he shares little else about his dealings with the Clintons, lest he "violate any pastoral confidences."

The discretion is admirable, and the title's vanity is understandable. But it's hard to understand how a clergyman who is so enthusiastic about the President's politics and so unrelentingly "understanding" about his sins is going to demand much "accountability." Of course, we do not know what private advice Wogaman has offered.

But his book, like his other public pronouncements on this topic, is a critique of Clinton's critics, not his sins. As such, Wogaman portrays himself as more enabler than pastor.

As a book about Clinton's scandals or the national response to them, From the Eye of the Storm is barely worth the hour or so it takes to skim its 139 pages. At his press conference, Wogaman mentioned that he wrote it "more quickly than any of my previous writings." It shows. The book is frequently repetitive and lacks any pungent insight about its ostensible topic. Wogaman wants mercy and grace for his President, but concurrently wants to slam that President's opponents. It's a hard balance to strike, trying to be both broad-spirited and polemical.

But as a window into the theological impotence of modern, mainline Protestant thought, From the Eye of the Storm is wonderfully useful. At his press conference, Wogaman was confronted by an uncomfortable question. What did he think about the Gospel account of John the Baptist's condemnation of King Herod's adultery? And did not Jesus call John the Baptist the greatest of all prophets?

"John the Baptist...was a stern and righteous prophet and said things maybe that needed to be said, [but] he didn't have love. He didn't have love," Wogaman explained. "No love?," the questioner asked with dismay. "It wasn't terribly visible," Wogaman impatiently responded, obviously anxious to move on to less biblical topics.

Apparently unlike the intolerant John the Baptist, whose head was severed by an unappreciative Herod, Wogaman's book stresses love. His brand of love is caring, compassionate, nonjudgmental, inclusive, growing, maturing, gooey, and without definition or foundation. It's a sort of love that would be more recognizable to day-time talk show hosts than biblical prophets.

Wogaman admits Clinton "misbehaved badly," but does not really explain why he believes so. Whether the President committed perjury is an "unresolved legal question" that Wogaman does not feel equipped to judge. "Most people," he surmises, would behave like Clinton in trying to disguise an extramarital affair. This fact does not excuse lying, but makes it "understandable."

"I do not wonder that the President invoked every available legalism to counter the barrage of legalism he had to confront," Wogaman opines. As to sex, the pastor repeatedly states that it's less "harmful" when it's "loving," "monogamous" and "committed." He does not evidently think Clinton's liaisons with Monica Lewinsky could be described as such. But unlike most clergy, he declines to describe marriage as a precondition for sexual expression.

In a New York Times interview earlier this year (copies of which Wogaman's publicist distributed at the press conference), he called sexual fidelity a "cultural expression" that is often "idolatrous." A prominent proponent for liberalized standards on sexuality within his own denomination (United Methodist), he supports same-sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Like any good feminist, Wogaman is concerned about the "power" disparity between the President and the young intern. But what if Lewinsky were a 50-year-old corporate executive? What if Hillary were fully consenting? What if Clinton and Lewinsky professed to be in love, committed to each other, and abstaining from sexual contact with any others? Would Wogaman then object? If so, he gives no reasons why he should.

Recalling a joint television appearance with Jerry Falwell, Wogaman notes the Baptist minister's insistence that the President, like a clergyman, should resign or be removed from office for sexual misconduct. But Wogaman says he would not insist that a fallen clergyman should step down either. Their "misbehavior" need not be a "fatal disease," especially if they have "important gifts" to contribute to their profession. Besides, such "brokenness" could make them the more sympathetic and effective than ever!

Wogaman objects strongly to pornography, of which the Ken Starr report was the rankest sort. But he slyly wonders: "Why is it that even so many of those who are bitterly opposed to pornography seem to...expose it in such detail?" He is distressed about Starr's supposed "relationships" with Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Rutherford Institute. He is also distressed about the "lower journalistic standards" resulting from increased competition and "multiple forms of news transmission."

Describing Clinton as a man of public and private virtue whose strengths outweigh the flaws, Wogaman oddly declines to further elaborate on the President's spiritual and intellectual gifts. Surely he could have done so without breaking a pastoral confidence. Instead, he hails Clinton's "effective presidency" because of his strides on social security, public education, tobacco, racism, terrorism and violence. Again, there's no further elaboration.

"Early on he indicated he was happy for me to speak out," Wogaman recounted to the press conference about the President's approval of his pastor's media availability. Although an articulate speaker and prolific writer, Wogaman's muddled theology impairs his effectiveness with the church-going audiences he presumably is intended to reach.

A truly shrewd Bill Clinton would have returned to his native Southern Baptists, pleaded for forgiveness, and impelled a Bible-toting, hell-fire preacher to defend the repentant President. But for now, Clinton is stuck with the tepidly Methodist Rev. Wogaman. From the Eye of the Storm is not so much about how a President failed a nation, but how a pastor seems to have failed the President.

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