Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
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 Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

God in the Press Box

Excommunication in Rochester

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

A Civil Religious Affair
by Mark Silk

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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 president’s 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 Clinton’s 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 Clinton’s 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 country’s 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 Post’s 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 God’s purposes and the nation’s, but just about all have availed themselves of the opportunity to sound the ACR’s 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 Lincoln’s Bedroom," ran the headline on Donn Esmonde’s Buffalo News column. "Isn’t 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 York Times.

"It’s 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 Lincoln’s 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 press.

It would be an "insult to America’s 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,’ that’s 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 America’s secular shrines," history professor and sometime journalist Roger Wilkins told the Washington Post that he considered the president’s 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, it’s condescending and insulting." Such conduct stood in diametric opposition to Ronald Reagan’s 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 Senate’s impeachment vote, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut-one of Clinton’s most outspoken Democratic critics-asked those attending the National Prayer Breakfast "at this time of difficulty for the president...that you accept his atonement."

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 Washington’s plea, in his Farewell Address, that "the Constitution be sacredly maintained." The most famous modern invocation is Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s, 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 ACR’s 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 we’ve done and say, ‘they kept the faith.’"

The president’s 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 president’s 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 president’s 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 Oliphant’s column in the Boston Globe. Quoting Barbara Jordan’s Watergate invocation, Denver Post deputy editorial page editor Bob Ewegen declared, "Jordan’s 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 blown away."

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 not infallible."

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 Clinton’s assailants in the House and Senate in the face of unflagging popular opposition to impeachment. A concern to satisfy their party’s 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 president’s 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 president’s 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 president’s 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 Washington’s "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 president’s resignation. The editorialists did not follow the Republicans in demanding the president’s 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 president’s 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 president’s 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 ACR’s political and journalistic clerisy, American citizens declined to judge his offenses as sacrilege that fundamentally threatened the nation’s 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 didn’t need him-or any other politician or commentator-to show them how to behave. Civil anticlericalism, you might call it