Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

Islam In Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Where Preachers Fear to Tread: The Clinton Scandal
by Mark Silk

In the great presidential sex scandal of 1884, the pulpit played a prominent role. After the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke the story of Grover Cleveland’s alleged illegitimate son, two prominent Buffalo ministers thrust themselves forward, preaching sermons and writing letters to the newspapers denouncing the nominee of the Democratic Party for all-round dissoluteness. In response, two of the country’s prominent liberal divines, Henry Ward Beecher and James Freeman Clark, stepped up to defend Cleveland’s character. Meanwhile, the country’s most powerful church organ, the Independent, first encouraged the nation’s clergy to call for Cleveland’s defeat, then changed its tune once its own investigation had given him a more or less clean bill of moral health. On election day, Cleveland squeaked through to victory.

By contrast, public moralizing about this year’s charges of sexual misconduct against President Clinton fell largely to professionals in the news media. Here are a few of the more pungent denunciations of the President: "a man completely without honor or decency" (Mona Charen, syndicated columnist); "He will take the Oval Office as deep into the abyss as his vile instincts will drag it" (Mark David, Fort Worth Star-Telegram); "He has degraded his own record as a president and befouled his own name as a human being" (New York Post editorial); and––perhaps tongue-in-cheek––"Perhaps Bill Clinton is the Devil" (Maureen Dowd, New York Times). The conclusion, often explicit, was that the President should resign or be impeached.

The polls, however, left the denunciators in an awkward position. Since the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s, journalists have been the object of recurrent criticism for lacking the traditional "Judeo-Christian morality" of ordinary Americans. In a notable roundtable exchange published in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, television commentator Jeff Greenfield described how he had come to realize, during the Gary Hart scandal of 1984, that there were "millions of people for whom I suspect evidence of compulsive adultery is evidence of a character flaw so grievous that no matter how smart or courageous or committed he is, they don’t want that guy in the White House." Now, it seemed, there were millions more who didn’t particularly care.

And opinion writers did not shrink from hurling fire and brimstone at them. The American public, said Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, "is too complacent and self-involved to confront––or care about––what is being done to the highest office in its power to bestow." The fact that one-third of the American public wanted Clinton removed from office suggested to Larry MacIntyre of the Indianapolis Star/News that "two-thirds of the American public is in need of remedial training in ethics." "People ought to be ashamed of themselves," growled radio host Don Imus.

Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel railed against "the low morals of the American people, many of whom are as sleazy as Clinton," and hoped for "a moral and religious revival." "It is appropriate, I think, to wonder sometimes about the judgments of the majority," wondered William F. Buckley, Jr. A New York Times editorial wished that we might see "a resurgence of the old conviction that character counts, and that rigorous inquiry into the character of Presidential candidates is not an intrusion but a civic obligation."

While not every pundit burst a gasket, the mean temperature of outrage was remarkably elevated. "There are few sights more repellent than the media having a fit of morality," pronounced the Star-Telegram’s Molly Ivins. Be that as it may, the media histrionics did not exactly make for dispassionate moral analysis.

So what of the bona fide morality professionals, the clergy proper?

A month into the scandal, New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted the absence of clerical voices commenting on the allegations against the President and offered a number of explanations: modesty; a fear of "flailing"; an embrace of Jesus’ injunctions "Judge not, that ye be not judged," and "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone"; and a possible media preference for non-religious morality experts over religious ones.

This last may have had something to do with the dearth of prominent religious leaders at the center of the national culture. From Puritan ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to leaders of different faiths in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam war, mainstream clergy had always been on hand to pronounce on questions of faith and morals and public policy. Nowadays, such public clerics as exist tend to come from the right-wing margin, with latter-day Beechers and Clarks hard to come by.

Still, persons of the cloth did gradually begin to weigh in. True to the Steinfeldian schema, however, they were reticent in their moralizing.

The Rev. Billy Graham, aged lion of evangelicalism and the best-known Protestant in the world, earned the wrath of Beltway Savonarola William Bennett for remarking in an NBC interview, "He [Clinton] has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him...I forgive him…because I know the frailty of human nature." The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the President’s Washington pastor and a noted Methodist ethicist, said he thought the "personal character of any leader is very important" but that "personal morality is not only about sex." The Rev. Andrew Greeley––Catholic priest, sociologist, and popular novelist––expressed the belief that the "ability of Americans to distinguish between private behavior and public responsibility is a notable improvement in moral sensitivity." Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who for months had been hawking a videotape alleging all sorts of nefarious doings in the White House, demurred: "I have no intention of adding to his burdens."

All-or-nothing morality is the news media’s stock-in-trade, and there is a tendency for journalists to suppose that real religion is about that, too. But the actual Judeo-Christian tradition, as opposed to the one of contemporary political rhetoric, takes a more sophisticated approach to crime and punishment than many media moralists imagine. Well before Jesus’ cautions about passing judgment, the tough-minded God of the Hebrew Bible was not above carefully calibrating the moral desserts of government leaders.

When King David sends Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle in order to take possession of his wife Bathsheba, God is not pleased. The prophet Nathan is forthwith delegated to make the displeasure known and punishment is meted out by causing the child of the adulterous couple to die. But God does not boot David out of office.

Ordinary American layfolk, as well as their pastors, may have had this story in mind when the pollsters came to call.