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February 20, 1999
Column #912

             A Religious Debate on Clinton Morality

     Days before the birthday of George Washington, who proclaimed as a young man, ''I can not tell a lie,'' President William Jefferson Clinton was acquitted of having lied before a Grand Jury and obstructing justice in covering up an extramarital affair.
     In fact, I first heard the final Senate votes from the President's pastor, Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, of Foundry United Methodist Church. Wogaman was in a debate about ''Confession, Forgiveness and the Presidential Crisis'' at the Ethics and Public Policy Center with Dr. Robert Jewett, Professor of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
     ''The question is: Which of these, law or love, must give way when they are in conflict?'' asked Wogaman. He said that ''Love is not a soft virtue.   It is the foundation of all virtue.'' He noted that on Sept. 11, the same day the Starr Report was released, where the emphasis was on ''finding and locating wrong-doing, and being sure it was adequately punished,'' at a Presidential Prayer Breakfast, Clinton was ''repentant and the recipient of a good deal of forgiveness. I think the president's repentance on that occasion was real and deep.'' 
     Jewett could not disagree more.  In fact he drafted a ''Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency'' signed by 140 theological scholars which doubted the President's sincerety at the breakfast, when he said, ''I have sinned.''
     At the debate, Jewett asserted, ''By couching his admission in the form of a confession of sins, Mr. Clinton evoked automatic, uncritical responses from believers all over the country. It was a masterstroke of propaganda. By confessing sins, he could claim exemption from the consequences of lying.''
     The scholars add, ''We fear that the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts.''
      Why did they call it an ''incomplete repentance?'' Because of its ''astonishing vagueness.'' He did not specify any specific sins.  Was he referring to adultery, perjury or obstruction of justice? And in the next breath Clinton said he would ''instruct my lawyers to mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments.'' Jewett said, ''This defense entails denying the very acts that the confession seemingly admits.''
     An authentic confession would take full responsibility for one's behavior and its consequences.  At the time, I quoted Chuck Colson as recalling that he had asked forgiveness for his sins in Watergate: ''But I also knew I had to pay the consequences for breaking the law. I pleaded guilty and went to prison.'' A truly contrite president would resign.
     By contrast, in his defense to the Senate, Clinton's lawyers even retracted the admission on August 17 that he ''misled'' investigators, and denied he had ever lied to his staff or Grand Juries or investigators. Yet he got away with it! Not even a majority of Senators voted for either charge.
     Why?  Polls showed the American people supported him, by even growing percentages. That surprised me.  I predicted that his support would fade, when the facts became known. Nixon's support shrank from about 60 percent to 25 percent by the time the Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him.
     The public's attitude toward Clinton is split. Polls show 80 percent of Americans believe he lied about Monica, but two-thirds support his staying in office.  They were willing to forgive him, because many believe he has been a good president. The economy is booming, which he does deserve some credit for.   He raised taxes on the rich to reduce the deficit, and not one Republican voted for the increase.  Republicans deserve primary credit for welfare reform that has taken millions off of public assistance and made them taxpayers. But Clinton signed the bill. As the deficit came down, his poll ratings increased.  He can also claim credit for declining crime rates. He backed the Brady bill to require gun purchasers to undergo background checks.  Several hundred thousand felons were denied the right to buy guns, and crime has fallen steadily.
     Nevertheless, the President has lost such moral credibility that when he bombs terrorists or Iraq, we can't believe his reasons for doing so. His example shouts that women exist to be exploited, that honesty is not the best policy, rules are for losers and character doesn't matter.
     Therefore, it is essential that Congress pass a resolution to censure him, with overwhelming bipartisan support.  That would tell our youth that telling lies under oath, tampering with witnesses, and blaming others for your crimes will get some punishment.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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