Vol. 1, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
Religion and the Post-Welfare State
Islam In Virginia
The Pope in Cuba
Religion in a Cold Climate
Preachers Fear to Tread: The Clinton Scandal
by Mark Silk
great presidential sex scandal of 1884, the pulpit played a prominent role. After the Buffalo
Evening Telegraph broke the story of Grover Clevelands 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 countrys prominent liberal divines, Henry
Ward Beecher and James Freeman Clark, stepped up to defend Clevelands character.
Meanwhile, the countrys most powerful church organ, the Independent, first
encouraged the nations clergy to call for Clevelands 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 years 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); andperhaps
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
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 dont want that guy in the White
House." Now, it seemed, there were millions more who didnt 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 confrontor care aboutwhat 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
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-Telegrams 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 Presidents 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 GreeleyCatholic priest, sociologist, and popular
novelistexpressed 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 medias 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.