Vol. 2, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:
Religion and Alabama Politics
Covering the Bible Belt II: A Freethinker's
Covering the Bible Belt III: Liaisons Religieuses
God in the Press Box
Excommunication in Rochester
No National Conspiracy
Religion on the Small Screen
by Mark Silk
Just before public release of the Starr report last September, a New York Times
article by old Washington hand R.W. Apple allowed as how the American people might finally
turn against President Clinton once they learned "the explicit details of the
presidents repeated sexual encounters with Ms. Lewinsky-and especially the fact they
took place near the sanctum sanctorum of American government, the Oval Office."
The use of religious language to clothe the places and processes of
American government (Oval Office as Holy of Holies) has been a national habit ever since
the signers of the Declaration of Independence announced their "firm reliance on the
protection of Divine Providence" and pledged their "sacred Honor" to each
other. Actions that sully those places and processes take on the character of sacrilege,
as the accounts of President Clintons misdeeds make clear.
Yet throughout the Lewinsky affair the public at large remained notably unperturbed. To
the chagrin of Republicans and the surprise of many in the news media, President
Clintons supposed desecration of his office seemed to scandalize politicians and
journalists far more than it did ordinary Americans.
Why? The answer has to do with the nature of what religious studies scholars call the
American Civil Religion, or ACR.
Washington, D.C. is the sun around which the ACR whirls. Like ancient Rome, its sacred
spaces include the institutions of the living government and many formal shrines-the
monuments of great presidents, the chief cemetery for the war dead, the memorials to the
wars themselves, the repository where the countrys founding documents are preserved
and displayed as objects of veneration. Citizens make pilgrimages thither, but are
necessarily less caught up in the rituals of the place than the politicians and pundits,
the lawyers and lobbyists and policy pushers, who cluster there like so many lesser
clergy. "When everything is turned upside down," Beltway historian and talking
head Michael Beschloss told the Washington Posts Sally Quinn, "it
affects our psyche more than someone who might be farming in Wyoming."
Constitutional prohibitions against religious establishments notwithstanding, the ACR
does not shrink from associating itself with the God of church, synagogue, and mosque.
"In God We Trust" adorns our national currency and has been the national motto
since 1954, when "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. The
congressional day begins with prayer, and for more than half a century high federal
officeholders have gathered annually for what is now called the National Prayer Breakfast.
Over the years, the ACR has been ready to identify American ends with those of a higher
power. President Eisenhower spoke of the United States as a "shrine or instrument of
God," while President Reagan called it "an anointed land." Abraham Lincoln
struggled more profoundly than other presidents with the relationship between Gods
purposes and the nations, but just about all have availed themselves of the
opportunity to sound the ACRs mighty Wurlitzer. The President of the United States,
ceremonial head of state and quadrennial incarnation of the national destiny, serves as
our pontifex maximus.
Talented orator and avid churchgoer that he is, President Clinton has enthusiastically
endeavored to exercise this priestly role. In the annals of civil religious rhetoric he
will doubtless receive a footnote for "The New Covenant," a phrase he unveiled
during the 1992 campaign and employed extensively in 1995 to counter the triumphant House
Republicans "Contract with America." But it is as transgressor rather than
celebrant that William Jefferson Clinton will leave his mark upon the ACR. He entered
office in the transgressive mode-as the draft-dodging Vietnam war protestor who knocked
off an heroic World War II combat pilot. In his second term, Clinton the usurper became
Clinton the desecrator.
First came the Lincoln Bedroom affair. In February 1997, investigations into Democratic
fund-raising practices disclosed that the Clintons had put up 938 guests in the Lincoln
Bedroom, and scores of these turned out to have gained the invitation because of the size
of their campaign contributions.
"Political Cash Grab So Sleazy It Dirties Lincolns Bedroom," ran the
headline on Donn Esmondes Buffalo News column. "Isnt it a
shame?" lamented the Louisville Courier-Journal. "[I]nfinitely more
shameless" than previous "tales of Democratic fundraising," cried the Boston
Herald. "Selling the Lincoln Bedroom is not a high crime or misdemeanor,"
pronounced syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. "But it is offensive."
"[T]he image of guests racing in and out of White House bedrooms like something out
of a Feydeau farce makes it clearer than ever that Mr. Clinton was presiding over an
operation that was out of control and demeaning to the government," sniffed the New
"Its probably the most American room in the White House because of the aura
of Lincoln," George Washington University historian Allida Black explained to USA
Today. "If the Oval Office is the center of power, then the Lincoln Bedroom is
the heart of the public." The aura of the Bedroom-where Lincolns cabinet met
and his body was laid out-showed up in the polls. Although 54 percent of respondents had
no trouble with the president entertaining political contributors in the White House, 59
percent deemed it inappropriate to invite them to stay the night in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Bedroomgate was a legitimate story-one White House memo bore the presidential notation
to "start the overnights right away"-but the same cannot be said for Gravegate,
the next tale of Clintonic sacrilege. In the December 1997 issue of the Washington
Times magazine Insight, an article entitled "Is There Nothing
Sacred?" charged the administration with making burial plots in Arlington National
Cemetery available by special waiver to big campaign contributors. Although it identified
no waived beneficiaries and quoted only unnamed sources, the article quickly became the
outrage du jour of conservative talk radio, and was given wide exposure by the daily
It would be an "insult to Americas most hallowed national cemetery to make
an Arlington burial just another perk for political contributors," editorialized the Omaha
World-Herald. The story, said the Arizona Republic, "does, in fact,
carry the cache [sic] of outrageous truth." While it did not take long for the
administration to prove the article groundless, no one disputed that the outrage could
have taken place. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, "What you
need to know about Bill Clinton is that the charge was plausible."
These campaign-finance-related stories are reminiscent of centuries-old attacks on
simony and the selling of indulgences: Spiritual benefits are not supposed to be offered
for money-especially to the unworthy. "When an actor can go on TV and say to a talk
show host, I can get you a place in the Lincoln Bedroom, thats just not
right," Letitia Baldrige, social secretary in the Kennedy White House, told People
magazine. But Bedroomgate and Gravegate only dimly foreshadowed the civil religious panic
caused by Monicagate.
As R.W. Apple insinuated, the affair involved ritual pollution of a sacred place.
Calling the White House "the holiest of Americas secular shrines," history
professor and sometime journalist Roger Wilkins told the Washington Post that he
considered the presidents conduct "a betrayal of the ideals we have for the
metaphysical office and the physical office of the presidency. For this man to say that
his conduct of exploitation of this girl is private in a place we revere, a place we pay
for, a place we own is not only absurd, its condescending and insulting." Such
conduct stood in diametric opposition to Ronald Reagans exemplary presidential
piety. Clinton used the Oval Office as his "personal sexual playground,"
Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney informed the Detroit News,
but Reagan considered the room "so sacred that he refused to take his suit coat off
while he was in it."
Where ritual pollution occurs, ritual cleansing is required. "A somber and, if
properly done, cleansing moment is occur[r]ing in America," wrote syndicated
columnist Cal Thomas after the House of Representatives took up the Starr report.
"Someday, because America gives us blessed chances to scrub ourselves, the country
will feel clean again," intoned New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal.
"Following the constitutional process laid down to deal with the Bill Clintons will
make us fresher faster."
In the ACR, it is constitutional process rather than public penance that wipes away
sin. To be sure, the line separating the civil religious remedy from the penitential one
sometimes blurred during the Year of Impeachment. In acknowledging his extramarital affair
to the American people last August, President Clinton admitted wrongdoing but neither
repented nor asked forgiveness for what he insisted was a private matter "between me,
the two people I love most-my wife and our daughter-and our God." But at a White
House prayer breakfast for 100 religious leaders in September he freely discussed his
repentance and search for forgiveness.
News coverage of the latter led a group of 140 mostly conservative theologians to issue
a declaration charging that "serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness
are being exploited for political advantage" in such a way as to threaten "the
integrity of American religion" and "the foundations of a civil society."
Forgiveness, declared the theologians, "is a relational term that does not function
easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability." But it was not only the
president who sought to travel the civil and penitential tracks simultaneously. On the eve
of the Senates impeachment vote, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut-one of
Clintons most outspoken Democratic critics-asked those attending the National Prayer
Breakfast "at this time of difficulty for the president...that you accept his
In the halls of Congress, impeachment went forward under the aegis of a universal dogma
that University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson has called Constitutional Faith.
Its locus classicus is George Washingtons plea, in his Farewell Address, that
"the Constitution be sacredly maintained." The most famous modern invocation is
Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordans, made just before she voted to impeach President
Nixon: "My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total. I am not
going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the
destruction of the Constitution." But while Constitutional Faith is the ACRs
dogma, like other dogmas it admits of sectarian interpretation.
"If it were to be asked," asked House manager Steven Buyer, "What is the
most sacred duty and the greatest source of security in a Republic? The answer would be,
an inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws." By Republican standards,
President Clinton had disrespected both, and needed to be thrust from office. Pleading for
enough senators votes to convict, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde expressed the
hope that in 100 years "people will look back at what weve done and say,
they kept the faith."
The presidents defenders testified to their own version of Constitutional Faith.
Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told
her hometown paper that impeaching the president for lying about sex would trample that
"sacred document," the Constitution. And in his virtuoso summation of the
presidents case before the Senate, just retired Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers
announced that he had come not to defend Bill Clinton the man but rather: "It is the
weight of history on all of us, and it is my reverence for that great document-you have
heard me rail about it for 24 years-that we call our Constitution, the most sacred
document to me next to the Holy Bible."
To answer the argument that the presidents offenses did not rise to the
constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors, prosecutors portrayed them as
acts of sacrilege against the system of justice. The "sanctity of oath" is so
essential to the justice system, House impeachment chief counsel David Schippers argued,
that the circumstances surrounding a case are of no significance whatever: "It is the
oath itself that is sacred and must be enforced." Calling the president "the
trustee of the national conscience," Hyde contended that the specific crimes
committed by the president mattered insofar as he had "violated the rule of law and
thereby broken the covenant of trust with the American people." By contrast, Washington
Post columnist Richard Cohen warned the leaders of the House that "the sincerity
of their views is no excuse for breaking a sacred covenant with the American people: Their
government is their government."
In the end, Constitutional Faith required that the entire impeachment process be
declared a victory for...itself. "The Constitution Stands Tall" proclaimed the
headline on Thomas Oliphants column in the Boston Globe. Quoting Barbara
Jordans Watergate invocation, Denver Post deputy editorial page editor Bob
Ewegen declared, "Jordans faith was justified in 1974 and it was justified
again last week. The glory of our United States Constitution endures still." Even
House impeachment manager Lindsay Graham, who had urged the senators to "cleanse this
office" by voting to convict, announced after the acquittal that the president
himself had "been cleansed. The cloud from the White House constitutionally has been
To be sure, not everyone was convinced that the system had worked so well. But it was
all but impossible to publicly attribute anything that went awry to the Constitution
proper. One of the few who did, former congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin, felt
compelled to strike an apologetic note. "The Constitution is indeed a sacred
document," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece, "but it is
As much civil religious smoke as was generated throughout Monicagate, how much real
light does the concept of the ACR shed on what will certainly go down as one of the more
remarkable episodes in the history of the American presidency? It is one of those cases, I
believe, where a category from the academic study of religion can elucidate some otherwise
mysterious national business.
For starters, the ACR helps explain the persistence of President Clintons
assailants in the House and Senate in the face of unflagging popular opposition to
impeachment. A concern to satisfy their partys conservative activists-and prevent
primary challenges-is evidence that Republican lawmakers did not abandon all rational
calculation of political self-interest. But their unremitting jeremiads against the
presidents moral lapses should not be dismissed as merely an exercise in partisan
hypocrisy. For two decades, Republicans have avowed a Reaganesque version of the ACR that
exalts the presidents civil religious role as exemplar of American values and
reformer of American morals. Clinton has seemed to them to represent all that they have
stood against-and his White House dalliance with an intern became the emblem of his
betrayal of his office. It cannot be doubted that such a view was widely embraced among
the 30 percent of Americans who supported impeachment and conviction.
An understanding of the Republicans as civil religious sectarians runs parallel to the
much discussed culture-wars interpretation of the Lewinsky affair, in which the
"moral absolutism" of the presidents opponents is pitted against his (and
his defenders) "moral relativism." But the latter cannot explain the role
of the news media in the affair: Culture-wars analysis always places journalists-and
especially Washingtons "media elite"-on the relativist side of the battle
line. The journalistic obsession with Monicagate can, of course, be laid to a growing
appetite for sensationalism brought on by the proliferation of news- and gossip-mongering
on radio, cable television, and the Internet. Editorial pages, however, represent the
least sensationalistic corner of the news media, and as of September 1998 (according to a
count in USA Today) no fewer than 115-including those of many major metropolitan
dailies-had called for the presidents resignation. The editorialists did not follow
the Republicans in demanding the presidents impeachment and conviction, tending to
prefer a congressional vote of censure instead. But as designated community moralists,
they made common cause with politicians of both parties in castigating, often bitterly and
up to the very end, the presidents emblematic transgressions. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune
put it, "Any man who lies in legal testimony, pressing his hand onto a Bible and
swearing to tell the truth, is breaking the law; and when that man is the president, he is
fundamentally undermining the principles that are the fabric of our society."
This was exactly the view that two-thirds of the country consistently rejected. Not
that the public embraced the presidents alleged moral relativism. As was noted time
and again, the polls showed that an overwhelming majority viewed him as an immoral person
who had behaved immorally in this case. But unlike the ACRs political and
journalistic clerisy, American citizens declined to judge his offenses as sacrilege that
fundamentally threatened the nations civic order. Like layfolk in most times and
places, their devotions are episodic, their theology imprecise, their interests
down-to-earth. Exercising their civic prerogative, they had given Bill Clinton two
four-year contracts to run the country, not to serve as trustee of the national
conscience. They didnt need him-or any other politician or commentator-to show them
how to behave. Civil anticlericalism, you might call it