"Politically, the president may survive his time on the cross," Kenneth Woodward writes in Newsweek (November 23, 1998), but many leading religious thinkers "still doubt his spiritual sincerity."
Seeing the current crisis in the White House as a critical moment in the life of our nation, more than 135 scholars of religion and public life have signed the "Declaration concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency." The Declaration, recently featured in The Wall Street Journal (November 30, 1998), is a statement meant to bring clarity to the moral confusion caused by the presidential scandal.
Judgment Day at the White House begins with the Declaration and then follows with essays by signers of the Declaration—Jean Bethke Elshtain, Max Stackhouse, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert Jewett, Don Browning, and others. An opposing section includes essays by Peggy and Donald Shriver, Lewis Smedes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others who have chosen not to sign and, indeed, are critical of the Declaration on various counts. The book also reprints essays by three prominent commentators—Stephen Carter, Shelby Steele, and Andrew Sullivan—that parallel the Declaration’s concerns.
Providing substantive discussion on the moral issues raised by the Clinton crisis, these essays explore such topics as the manipulation of religion in the debate about presidential responsibility, the social effects of sinful acts, and the exploitation of words like "repentance" and "forgiveness" for political advantage.
The first solid assessment of the White House crisis from a religious perspective, Judgment Day at the White House offers a bold—and much-needed—statement on public morality.
|Publisher:||Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.03(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.61(d)|
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Politics and Forgiveness:
The Clinton Case
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN
We are awash in confession these days. There is the low form on daytime television talk shows and the slightly higher form in bookstores. Rectitude in personal matters has given way to "contrition chic," as one wag called it, meaning a bargain-basement way to gain publicity, sympathy, and even absolution by trafficking in one's status as victim or victimizer. Given the shameless nature of so much of our popular culture and the way it traffics in and cheapens notions of forgiveness ("let's get this behind us," "let's move to closure"), it would be tempting to end the matter right here and to dismiss all acts of public contrition as bogus.
But that doesn't seem right. Rather, what is required is to distinguish between instances of contrition chic and, by contrast, serious acts of public or political forgiveness. That is a first step. A second is to examine clearheadedly and tough-mindedly the relationship between contrition and forgiveness and the rule of law. When the person seeking forgiveness is not simply a "private" person but the holder of an office, what rules should pertain in evaluating when forgiveness wipes the slate clean, so to speak, and when it is but one moment in a more complex process in which legal and political consequences may also be involved?
Although individual acts of forgiveness one human being to another most often take place outside the full glare of publicity, there are others that are noteworthyfor embodying a radical alternative to contrition chic. One thinks here of Pope John Paul II, who, having barely survived an assassin's bullets, uttered his first public words from his hospital bed to the violent shooter whom he now described as "my brother, whom I have sincerely forgiven," words that preceded the pope's extraordinary visit to his brother and would-be killer in jail once he was up and about. There is a gravitas manifest in this narrative that is altogether lacking in American quasi-therapeutic, talk-showish confessions that are most often blatantly self-exculpatory in contrast to the way one professes a demanding faith Christianity, in this instance a faith within which forgiveness is a constitutive dimension.
Those for whom forgiveness is central and solemn engage in what theologian L. Gregory Jones calls the practice or "craft" of forgiveness in his recent book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Pope John Paul II was practicing this craft and, in so doing, displaying to the world the ways in which forgiveness is not primarily about a singular confessional moment but about an enactment within a particular way of life, a way of life shaped not by foggy sentimentalism but by certain hard-won and difficult truths. Moreover, forgiveness is something quite different from aloofness or detachment just not giving a damn -- also mistakenly presented nowadays as a form of forgiveness. What is at stake, then, is a tougher discipline by far than are public acts of easy repentance sought and something like "forgiveness" as a kind of willed amnesia proffered. When people sincerely try to make amends, it would be churlish of us to withhold from them any possibility that what they say or do might make a difference in, and for, the future. True. But the public repentance of a political figure cannot simply be a matter of words. Words and deeds cannot be so readily disentangled. And forgiveness still leaves open or unresolved a whole series of difficult political and legal questions related to the person's carrying out the duties of his or her office.
Enter President Clinton and the sorry scandal that simultaneously transfixes us and invites an epidemic of denial. Why do we so much want all of this to "go away"? The answer, I believe, is complex and touches on our understanding of forgiveness, the rule of law, the proper demarcation between public and private, the nature of political office, and our responsibilities as citizens. These are inherently complex matters that do not lend themselves to sound bytes and simplistic or moralistic, for that matter resolutions. I shall address but a few.
First, the impeachment hearings now underway did not come about because the President exercised deplorable judgment in his "private" life. What goes on in the Oval Office is not enveloped within a private cordon sanitaire. Those who hold to this view insist that anything to do with sexuality is by conceptual fiat in a "zone of privacy," so why shouldn't this pertain in the President's case? There are legal, political, and theological responses. One of the things we have learned from three decades of feminism and should have understood on grounds of simple decency all along is that many serious offenses can be papered over with the claim that what went on is "nobody's business" but that of the participants involved. Sometimes, indeed, this is the case. But it is a mistake to argue that anything that can be filed under the rubric of "consent" is off limits to critical scrutiny. Let's assume that President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky both "consented" to the relationship, if indeed what was going on can be thus characterized. Consent is no magic wand. Nagging questions remain, and serious problems are not automatically erased. Was this wise? Was it decent? Was it reckless? Was it damaging to all involved, consent or no consent?
Now take matters one step further. The relationship, or the provision of sexual services, involved employer and employee and took place in his the employer's place of work, which also happens to be one of the "sacred" sites of America's civic-minded people. One can hardly imagine a more public place in which to carry on intimate transactions. This was no "discreet affair," with the two principals doing their utmost to try to protect the feelings, the moral concerns, and the sensitivities of all involved. In addition, a small army of staffers was enlisted by the President to facilitate these assignations and an even larger number to cover matters up once things turned sour. Surely this has crossed the boundary into the public domain on every possible scale ethical, legal, and political.
Furthermore, ethical questions are involved here that are cheapened or ignored by being dismissed as "puritanical" ravings. Here I have in mind the ill use of a secretary, friends, cabinet members, loyal supporters, even the President's spouse all brought into an orbit of deceit and cover-up, perhaps even criminal wrongdoing in the securing of a job for the "woman in question" in exchange for her silence in a lawsuit. How can this possibly be construed as merely private and thus off limits to public deliberation, debate, and judgment?
Here it is important to remember that the President of the United States is more than a company head. The CEO model that many of the President's defenders have been pressing on us is unworthy of a democratic nation and will not work, not unless one believes that our civic life comes down to what the stock market is doing. The office of President -- I repeat, the office of President is a complex and even harrowing one that historically involves or presupposes a kind of affective bond between a President and the American people. Once a President is elected, he is our President. We may not have voted for him, but if he occupies the White House, then he is ours. We are called upon to respond to his appeals, especially when he commits American blood and treasure in times of war and crisis.
But even those who do not agree with his policies must assume a level of integrity and decency on a President's part. He is part of our lives for at least four years. Presidents pronounce on everything from the status of the Russian ruble to school safety, from balancing budgets to how to get more balanced meals for poor children. If as the American people have concluded the president is of low moral character and his word cannot be trusted, then he cannot do his job effectively. If everything the President says is subject to ridicule and reinterpretation because he has become untrustworthy, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for him to govern effectively. He may last out a term, but he has become a place-holder, no longer a serious leader. Further, if we believe a President has behaved dishonorably and may even have broken the law (but that's okay because the subject is one "everybody" lies about), and we also claim that he is an "effective" leader nonetheless, then we have moved into a zone of amoral Machiavellianism that ill befits us as a people and that undermines a political system in which law has always been construed as more than a prohibitive or penal exercise. Rather, the law, ideally, embodies what is best, most capacious, and most hopeful about us as a people.
Where do these reflections lead us? Not to any knockdown answer about what should be done. But, minimally, the implication is clear: these are serious matters that should be discussed seriously. The President is not "just our Bill." Remember the office. This is where the politics of forgiveness enters. There is something suspect about a dynamic of forgiveness-seeking that takes place only after various forms of polling and public opinion monitoring have gone forward to determine how this strategy will "play" with the public. There is something suspect about a dynamic of forgiveness-seeking that takes place with all the cameras rolling and a group of pastors as a kind of supporting cast to a confession. There is something suspect about a dynamic of forgiveness-seeking that presupposes, once the confession of being a sinner is made, and it is acknowledged (in the passive tense) that mistakes have been made and people have been hurt, that it can then move to legal and political exculpation as the endgame.
Something is radically wrong and troubling about this scenario. And it has nothing to do with demanding moral perfection of our leaders. All have sinned and fallen short. Few of us would want our lives examined with a fine-toothed comb and the results of that examination made public. At the same time, it is deadly to a decent democratic process to abandon altogether standards of minimally decent, honorable, and law-abiding behavior in our public figures.
We are a compassionate people at our best. We understand that justice must be tempered with mercy. But we cannot take leave of our senses and abandon judgment and deliberation altogether in the interest of sweeping a mess under the rug. The issue in this debate at this time, where forgiveness is concerned, involves the President of the United States. Kenneth Starr has not gone before ministers of God and sought absolution. Nor has any of the other players in this sordid psychodrama. But the President has, and that is why his behavior must be scrutinized critically by those charged with particular responsibility for evaluating the role of religion in public life, and public life in light of religion. Presumably, the results of that critical assessment would be applicable to any officeholder whose task it is to see that the laws are faithfully upheld.
Most of us are not under such a requirement as a feature of our office. Those who undertake public office have special responsibilities. They are neither below nor above the law. But we rightly care, or at least we used to, more about what they do under cover of their office than what the clerk in the department store does, or the traffic cop or the farmer. Why? Because they have accepted and are charged with particular, clear responsibilities not incumbent upon the rest of us. We all have a duty to follow the law, unless it is blatantly unjust. But not all of us have a duty to uphold it. This point has been altogether eclipsed in the current debate, and it signals very troubling trends when forgiveness is played out as a political strategy. That strategy is tethered to the notion that if the person who sinned and the President has described himself in this way is sincere and really trying to put things right, then the writ of the law ceases to run and the process of public deliberation comes to a dead halt, including whether or not we expect Presidents in our time to treat all women as persons of dignity rather than to treat some women as means to a rather low and reckless end.
I have been saddened by the reemergence of old-fashioned sexism in the public debate: "she snapped her thong"; "she was stalking him"; "he's a guy and all guys lie about sex." Is this how far we have come in the relations between the sexes? Or, rather, is this how low we think we should go to exonerate the President and remove from his shoulders any responsibility for his actions? One can seek forgiveness, struggle and grapple with one's deeds, work to mend broken relationships, strive to restore depleted trust and confidence, and at the same time recognize that there may well be public penalties that remain for one's behavior.
If we do not move in this direction, then we are stuck in the moral twilight zone exemplified in a column that appeared shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1998, in our "national newspaper," sad as that may be, USA Today. The columnist notes polls showing that the American people are "eager to forgive President Clinton," and he links this to our "New Testament" founding ("clemency and grace") by contrast to the "Old Testament judgment of an 'eye for an eye.'" The columnist then points to other moments of our gracious "clemency," including toward O.J. Simpson, whose post-trial support has been "remarkable" considering the nature of the double homicide charges against him. He even points to the behavior of the Dallas Cowboys, who, despite "drug charges and accusations of other crimes ... remain the nation's most popular football team." It is the "Cowboys' winning spirit" that "captures hearts," and thus people are prepared to forgive their bad behavior even if they do not "condone" it.
Is this where we have arrived as a culture? Shouldn't our public leaders work to counter this sort of antinomianism rather than play to it? Personal sincerity is not the issue. The role of forgiveness and the use or abuse of that role for political ends is. I do not doubt the President's torment over his behavior. I do, however, most respectfully challenge the misuse of forgiveness for narrow political ends and purposes, whoever the President may be and whatever he may stand for. This is a sorry moment in our national life.
Table of ContentsPreface
Declaration concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency
Signers of the Declaration
PART I: DECLARATION SIGNATORIES MAKE THEIR CASE
Section A: The Ethics and Politics of Repentance and Forgiveness
Politics and Forgiveness: The Clinton Case Jean Bethke Elshtain
Broken Covenants: A Threat to Society? Max L. Stackhouse
Why Clinton Is Incapable of Lying: A Christian Analysis Stanley Hauerwas
President Clinton and the Privatization of Morality Fr. Matthew L. Lamb
Missing the Point on Clinton Don Browning
Dawdling toward Judgment: The Impeachment Issue and the Perennial Problems of Casuistry John Lawrence
Section B: Biblical, Pastoral, and Theological Perspectives on Public Morality
Confession and Forgiveness in the Public Sphere: A Biblical Evaluation Robert Jewett
How Shall We Respond to Wrongdoing? Is Moral Indignation Permissible for Christians? Klyne Snodgrass
A Biblical Perspective on the Forgiveness Debate Troy W. Martin
African-American Pastoral Theology as Public Theology: The Crisis of Private and Public in the White House Edward P. Wimberly
Christian Doctrine and Presidential Decisions Gabriel Fackre
PART II: DECLARATION CRITICS RESPOND
Not So Simple: Why I Didn’t Sign Nicholas P. Wolterstorff
Why Truth Matters More than Justice John Burgess
On the Other Hand Lewis Smedes
Sex, Lies, and Tapes: The Case of Bill Clinton and Catholic Tradition William J. Buckley
Accountability in and for Forgiveness Glen Harold Stassen
Has Faith a Healing Word? Donald W. and Peggy L. Shriver
PART III: NATIONAL COLUMNISTS SPEAK OUT
A Chance to Reset Our Moral Course Stephen Carter
Lies That Matter Andrew Sullivan
Baby-Boom Virtue Shelby Steele
PART IV: PRESIDENT CLINTON ON THE RECORD
President Clinton’s August 17 Televised Statement
President Clinton’s September 11 Religious Leaders’ Breakfast Speech