NEWS STORY: Clergy reaction to Clinton scandal as mixed as nation’s

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The day after President Clinton told the nation his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was a”critical lapse in judgment,”religious leaders took their turn in examining the moral implications of the president’s actions and words.

At a panel discussion on the scandal sponsored by the conservative National Clergy Council, theologians, counselors, and ethicists from a range of ideological perspectives called for national healing as well as the need for more contrition from the president.”It is time to give better than a political and legal commentary to this deeply distressing situation,”said the Rev. Rob Schenck, general secretary of the council, a Washington-based network of clergy known most for their anti-abortion stance.

Just like the political pundits who have discussed allegations surrounding the president for months, the religious leaders commenting at the daylong symposium and elsewhere had a range of reactions to Clinton’s admission Monday (Aug. 17) that he had an”inappropriate”relationship with Lewinsky.”In the end you have to say that God has to be the judge in all of this. I guess the bottom line is, `What would Jesus do?'”Sister Edith Prendergast, director of religious education for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Religion News Service.”There is the compassion that we must have for the person struggling, and at the same time we must have values and a moral code we must stand behind.” During the panel discussion, the Rev. Edwin Elliott, pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Manassas, Va., said the president seemed more”cornered”than contrite.”It is contrition that makes the difference between a concession and a confession,”he said.

Although Clinton said his”personal failure”is between him, his family and their God, some wished he had drawn more words from his Christian background as a Southern Baptist.”Most Americans wanted him to apologize and ask for forgiveness,”said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.”Instead, it was a polarizing rather than a unifying speech. He was more combative than contrite. He was more angry than apologetic.” The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, an anti-abortion group based in Washington, agreed, pointing out that Clinton said”it was wrong”rather than”I was wrong.””I did not hear Christian words such as forgiveness, apology or sorrow,”said Mahoney.

But the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disagreed.”I think he did, in fact, apologize to the American people,”said Lynn, who added that he was not speaking on behalf of his Washington-based group.”I think he made it clear that the healing process with his family is continuing and I think it is time for us to move on to the national healing.” The Rev. Tom Stringfellow, pastor of First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, told RNS he looks at Clinton’s action in light of biblical law.”Without a doubt he is in violation of two commandments given by God in the beginning of faith _ thou shalt not lie and thou shalt not commit adultery,”said Stringfellow.”If Clinton were a member of my church he would be subject to church discipline, possibly put on probation from membership for a period of time until these matters were resolved.” The experts on the panel believed the Clinton scandal touched on the most personal aspects of life as well as the larger moral climate of the nation.”Matters of morality are matters of the soul and the state of one’s soul is of primary importance,”said Donna Payne, a Christian education instructor in the Reformed Episcopal Church and a research scientist who has worked at medical schools in Maryland.”The voyeurism that has been typical of the public’s acceptance (of the scandal) tends to make us lose sight of the essential truth that President Clinton’s morality does matter, not because he’s the president but because he’s a human being.” Many panelists moved beyond the president’ actions to the nation’s reaction.”The real crisis facing this nation is not an irresponsible or dishonest or sexually obsessed president,”said the Rev. Canon Martin Eppard, the National Clergy Council’s Maryland representative.”It is rather the national moral climate. … The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we have become a society that has lost its ability to blush.” Minister Robert Brantley, president of the Brantley Group, a Christian management and mental health services company in Baltimore, views the Clinton scandal as an opportunity for personal healing for the president as well as national reconciliation.”There has been torture. There has been shaming in America,”said Brantley, a specialist in Christian conflict resolution.”Don’t ask what the president can do to restore your confidence in him. Ask what can you do to restore confidence in America in our children.” The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, urged that clergy to remember”the healing power of faith”and to rise above partisan politics.”Every occasion of sin is an opportunity for an experience of grace,”said Gaddy, whose Washington-based group works to counter efforts of the religious right.”Mercy is another name for God. It is not being soft on sin to attempt to bring good out of evil.”


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