COMMENTARY: Impeachment managers misused civil rights talk

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Beverly W. Harrison is a professor of Christian ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York and the author of"Our Right to Choose: Towards a New Ethic of Abortion". Carter Heyward, an Episcopal priest, is a professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of the forthcoming book,"Saving Jesus From Those who are Right.")

UNDATED _ As we write, the 13 House managers have just made their case to the Senate in pursuit of the goal they so ardently covet _ the successful impeachment of President Clinton.

As millions are reminded by their demeanor, the 13, nearly all ardent spokesmen for the political and Christian right, are"gentlemen"of substance and rectitude in their communities. All are white male Americans, and most are southerners or midwesterners elected by comfortable margins by people who feel safer with cultural homogeneity and like having representatives in Washington who feel the same way.

Standing before the Senate, their rhetoric _ intense and denunciatory in the House debate _ became simpler and more precise but no less vengeful. They pleaded with us to see what they see, to know what they"know"beyond a shadow of doubt _ that our president has engaged in"sinister plots,"terrible abuses of power, and evils so despicable his continuance in office will undermine"the rule of law"which, they claim, is the foundation of this nation.

A new wrinkle in their accusations voiced before the Senate, however, was their contention that the civil rights of all Americans, particularly women, are endangered by the actions of the president.

Noticing their previous lack of ardor for anyone's civil rights, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., could not contain his astonishment.

As longtime activists and advocates for the civil rights of those less powerful than the House managers and as women interested in securing women's reproductive rights and access to safe elective abortion, we share Conyers' amazement.

The lengths to which those who hate the president will go in defense of their effort to bring him down have led them to new heights of hypocrisy on just this point. Having over the years carefully tracked the rhetoric of Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and several others of the 13 against women who seek abortions and those who seek to maintain some rudiments of reproductive choice, it is almost more than we can bear to hear these"gentlemen"now paying such sanctimonious lip-service to women's well-being.

The wars against those who believe abortion should be legal have reached new heights of violence, yet our civil rights receive no mention in the House managers' ideological sectors of Congress.

Many have asked why many feminists are so willing to forgive Clinton. Make no mistake about it. The contrast between Clinton's political record on the civil rights of people of color, women, gay men and lesbians and the empty rhetoric of these"gentlemen"has much to do with our willingness to forgive this president.

Like members of the Congressional Black Caucus, we are not oblivious to the large gaps between Bill Clinton's rhetoric and his accomplishments. But we would have to be more oblivious still to ignore the gaping chasm between the House managers' current rhetorical high-mindedness and the actual votes they cast year in and year out in the Congress.

We believe one of the ways these Republicans have misread the public is by imagining we would fail to notice the credibility gap between their sudden professed interest in the well-being of certain women _ Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky _ and, by contrast, their disregard of most serious movements for justice, especially those on behalf of women and children in the United States and elsewhere.

Those of us who are Christian, but who most decidedly do not consent to the voices of the House managers as representative of our theological and moral visions, have been given little hearing in the media or in public discussion. Like the Christian Right, we also are mandated by our faith to speak.

To the Senate, we say: Stop the abuse of this less-than-perfect president, and also of his strong, capable and ever so decent and maligned spouse, Hillary Rodham Clinton!

It is not our inability to see Clinton's failures but rather our distrust of what the House managers and many of their Republican colleagues stand for as members of Congress who vote on matters of women's rights _ and civil rights of all sorts _ that renders their moral claims suspicious and their accusations hollow.