As the Clinton presidency reached a crisis point in 1998, the President relied on religious language — and high-profile events with religious leaders — to explain his conduct to the American people.
More than 90 religious thinkers — most of them would be described as “progressive” — worried that his conduct had brought the nation to a crucial moment in its conception of itself as a moral nation and in its understanding of the meaning of religious language. After a series of meetings and discussions, the following “Declaration” was drafted. It is reprinted here from a book of essays about it called Judgment Day at the White House (1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids).
As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:
1 Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular, we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events such as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast of September 11, 1998. 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. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena in which to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President's sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.
2 We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrongdoer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, it suggests that his public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.
3 We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission, the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one's actions.
4 We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students, Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes, while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither we nor our students demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.
5 We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis: whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.
6 While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to make a wise decision possible. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.