Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Presidential Pardon?” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone.
From the Eye of the Storm: A Pastor to the President Speaks Out
Judgement Day at the White House: A Critical Declaration Exploring Moral
Issues and the Political Use and Abuse of Religion
reviewed by Mark Tooley
J. Philip Wogaman is the pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. It is from the arched portals of his church that we see the Clintons emerging almost every Sunday.
Although he is still formally a Southern Baptist, the President has regularly joined his Methodist wife for services at Foundry almost since first coming to Washington. Wogaman has been the President’s most visible defender among the clergy since the Lewinsky scandal broke. He is now one of three ministers who comprise the “accountability group” with whom Bill Clinton meets for spiritual counsel.
In his new book, Wogaman reveals little about his personal dealings with the President, lest he “violate any pastoral confidences.” Instead, he mostly defends his most famous parishioner from the poisoned arrows of Kenneth Starr, the media, and Republican congressmen.
Persons not familiar with recent decades of mainline Protestant theological drift might be surprised by Wogaman’s arguments. The President’s other two spiritual counselors, Baptist professor Tony Campolo and Congregationalist pastor Gordon MacDonald, might be liberal in their politics but are fairly orthodox in their theology. Not so for Wogaman, who is a prominent proponent of liberalizing his denomination’s teachings about sexuality, is an advocate for same-sex “marriage,” and has called sexual fidelity a potentially idolatrous “cultural expression.” At a press conference to unveil his book, Wogaman lamented that John the Baptist had been “lacking in love” when he condemned the adultery of King Herod.
Wogaman admits that Clinton “misbehaved badly,” but he 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. He’s concerned about the “power” disparity between the President and a young intern but does not expend too much ink in condemning adultery per se.
Clergy who engage in Clinton’s conduct likely would lose their pulpits, Wogaman admits. But he is not sure that such misbehavior, even for men of the cloth, should be a “fatal disease,” especially if they have “important gifts” to contribute to their profession. Besides, such “brokenness” could make them more sympathetic and effective than ever. He hints that this might be so for Presidents as well.
Deriding the “legalism” to which Clinton’s critics adhere, Wogaman instead advocates a “great emphasis upon community and love.” He finds in Clinton’s “effective presidency” the attributes of this community, as demonstrated by Clinton’s supposed strides on social security, public education, tobacco, racism, terrorism, and violence.
Fundamentalists have commonly caricatured social gospel proponents as preoccupied with progressive social reforms at the expense of personal morality. Wogaman’s book lives up to this stereotype.
A more judicious analysis of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is found in Judgement Day at the White House, a collection of essays mostly from New Testament scholars and Christian ethicists. Their book originated with a Declaration composed last fall, signed by over 130 seminary and religion department faculty, criticizing Clinton’s questionable use of religious symbols and his evasion of personal responsibility.
They are especially distressed over the September 11, 1998 prayer breakfast at the White House, where pro-Clinton clergy, like Wogaman, performed a quick absolution for a President the Declaration signers view as only superficially penitent. According to essayist Robert Jewett of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, “Mr. Clinton may be the most accomplished liar ever to hold the American presidency.”
Jewett thinks Clinton’s “continuing assault on moral and religious integrity,” if unchallenged, will more grievously affect public life than any scars that would have been incurred by impeachment. Responding to the frequent comparison of Clinton to King David, Klyne Snodgrass of North Park Theological Seminary notes that the Hebrew monarch’s sins were forgiven but ultimately led to a civil war killing 20,000 people. Impeachment would have been preferable, he concludes.
Troy Martin of St. Xavier University, Chicago, exposes the cliché “forgive and forget” as not particularly Christian. Jesus engaged in confrontation, required accountability, and demanded that recalcitrant sinners be expelled, not forgiven. Gabriel Fackre of Andover Newton Theological School warns that “congressional servility before the polls” in the wake of Clinton’s popularity is no better than the President’s weakness for sexual seduction.
Advocating excommunication by his church rather than impeachment by Congress, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School suspects that Clinton is “truly religious” as an adherent of “civil religion” represented by mainstream Protestantism. I think Hauerwas gives both Clinton and mainline Protestant leaders too much credit. Civil religion, although vague, at least acknowledges moral absolutes. Do Clinton and Wogaman?
Many if not all of the essayists, although critical of Clinton, are themselves politically liberal. Like Fackre, they see the President’s political legacy, outside the scandal, as otherwise “commendable.” Most of the writers do not seem to recognize a continuum between Clinton’s messy personal life and a political career devoid of conviction, compromising everywhere except on abortion, the flagship issue of the sexual revolution.
Only Fr. Matthew Lamb of Boston College makes the connection in perhaps the most insightful essay. The privatization of morality inevitably leads to a debasement of human life, human rights, human dignity, and language itself, he sagely observes.
Several essays undertake to defend Clinton. In their effort, they sometimes resort to silliness and factual error. Lewis Smedes is so indignant over the National Rifle Association, William Bennett, and the Christian Coalition that he has no outrage left for Clinton’s misdeeds. He tries to equate Clinton with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy.
The father of our country supposedly romanced his best friend’s wife, Jefferson fathered a slave child, Roosevelt sustained an affair in the White House, and the shenanigans of Camelot were “spectacular.” Only the final statement is definitely true. There is no evidence that Washington ever touched Sally Fairfax. We still do not know for sure if Jefferson impregnated Sally Hemmings. Roosevelt’s daughter chaperoned his meetings with Lucy Rutherford. Kennedy is perhaps the only President whose personal life was on a par with Clinton’s.
The point is important. Clinton’s defenders have argued that most Presidents are satyrs. It is a cynical and unsubstantiated claim. Oddly, Smedes also slams Teddy Roosevelt, whose “obsessive love of war” possibly makes him Clinton’s moral inferior. Was he not the only President to win the Nobel Peace Prize?
In perhaps the worst diatribe, Glen Harold Stassen, of Fuller Theological Seminary, finds that racial bigotry is the real fuel of the right-wing conspiracy. Racism killed Lincoln, the Kennedys, and King. Now it is politically assassinating Bill Clinton, whom Stassen inexplicably ranks as a historic civil rights leader.
Stassen also blames Kenneth Starr’s appointment as Special Prosecutor on the machinations of an old segregationist, Strom Thurmond. I think he actually means Lauch Faircloth, another (now former) senator from another state.
Stassen and Smedes are the exceptions. This otherwise highly respectable collection of essays thoughtfully and theologically examines a year of presidential scandal in which neither godliness nor sound reason has been readily evident.
“Presidential Pardon?” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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