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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 1999 /6 Adar, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Where were the religious voices?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) Among the many questions the impeachment year has left for posterity to sort out is the role of religious leaders and religious standards in the public square.

It became a cliche that "politicians are not moral exemplars" and that if you're looking for moral uplift, don't look to the White House but to a house of worship. And yet, in the 12 months following the revelation of Monica Lewinsky's unusual intern experience, religious leaders were almost totally absent from the national debate.

The one religious figure who did put a toe in the water was the Rev. Billy Graham, who, in perhaps the worst public utterance of his distinguished career, offered the view that the president was not to be blamed for his actions since the ladies were throwing themselves at him.

Graham must have been having a bad day (he did later attempt to modify the import of his words). But one waited in vain, with one exception, which I'll come to in a moment, for other religious figures to fill the void.

There was no corresponding shortage of clerics ready to lend their good offices to the support of President Clinton. From the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the Rev. Philip Wogamon, they offered what might be called "religion lite," supplying plenty of forgiveness and little reproach.

What makes this doubly odd is that it was such an easy call. Let's admit that assessing the character of a leader is never a simple task, nor is the relationship between private and public virtue always clear.

Richard Nixon lied and broke the law in pursuit of his enemies, but he was a faithful husband and deeply devoted father. Ulysses Grant was often drunk, but Abraham Lincoln dared not remove him from command of the Union army on that account. Thomas Jefferson was a spendthrift and a slave holder, yet he ranks as one of the giants of our history.

Conversely, Jimmy Carter was and is an upright, morally sensitive man who proved a feeble and dangerously naive president. Criticized in 1941 for his willingness to make common cause with Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill summed up the moral choice this way: "If Hitler invaded Hell, I'd find something nice to say about the Devil himself."

At times of national strife, war or emergency, the willingness to overlook misbehavior in a leader -- even official misbehavior as was done in the case of Lincoln, who suspended the right of habeas corpus -- is understandable. If the nation's safety is at risk, punctiliousness about moral failings can be viewed as a luxury too expensive to indulge.

But in the case at hand, the economy was robust, crime and welfare dependence were declining, and the world was remarkably peaceful by modern standards. Far from being cause to overlook or excuse the president's disgraceful and illegal conduct, such a time should have made upholding moral standards easier.

Still, not all religious leaders ducked under their pulpits when the roll was called. One hundred eighty-eight of them (many of whom had voted for the president twice) signed a declaration following the infamous prayer breakfast last September, denouncing Bill Clinton for the cynical misuse of religion and religious symbols.

"As scholars interested in religion and public life," they wrote, "we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. ... 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."

Several clear-eyed and well-reasoned essays by the signers of that declaration are anthologized in "Judgment Day at the White House," available from the Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich. Here is the place to find "contrition chic" exposed and "counterfeit confession" condemned. In the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, "We understand that justice must be tempered with mercy. But we cannot take leave of our senses and abandon judgment ... altogether in the interests of sweeping a mess under the rug."

America has a very lumpy rug just now.


Depends what you mean by "acting"
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2/09/99:Prepare for post-impeachment spin
2/03/99:Teaching morality
2/01/99: What did he say?
1/26/99: The truth about the Peace Process
1/22/99: The vulgar decade
1/19/99: Was Jefferson libeled by DNA?
1/13/99: The backlash picks up speed
1/11/99: Who invented politics of personal destruction?
1/07/99: Shall we dance?
1/05/99: Try him!
12/30/98:The price of virtue
12/28/98: The gift of giving
12/22/98: Party of shame, party of shamelessness
12/18/98: Wag the country
12/16/98: Is this impeachment constitutional?
12/14/98: Republicans find courage
12/09/98: Nappy Hair and other racial slurs
12/07/98: Stranger in a strange land
12/02/98: Dangerous ground
11/30/98: Involuntary fatherhood?
11/24/98: Lies, damned lies, and sex lies
11/18/98: Another victory for cowardice
11/16/98: Separatism plus welfarism equals a dead end
11/10/98: Did conservatism lose campaign '98?
11/06/98: Democrat venality, Republican timidity
11/04/98: Are girls being shortchanged?
11/02/98: Believe the children?
10/28/98: What 'Measure 58' would do
10/26/98: The officers are bailing out
10/20/98: Using Matthew Shepard's murder
10/19/98: The school voucher that saved a family
10/14/98: Are powerful women different?
10/09/98: Can just sex be impeachable?
10/07/98: Repeal Miranda
10/02/98: Understanding the polls
10/01/98: What school texts teach about marriage
9/28/98: Fear of choice
9/23/98: A fork in the road: Bubba's fate and ours
9/18/98: Christianity and the Holocaust
9/16/98: The national dirty joke
9/11/98: Are we in crisis?
9/09/98: Does Burton's sin let Clinton off the hook?
9/07/98: Liar's Poker
9/01/98: One, two, three
8/28/98: Fat and folly
8/25/98: When homework is a dirty word
8/21/98: The unravelling
8/18/98: The wages of dishonesty
8/17/98: Sex, honor and the presidency
8/12/98: Pro-choice extremist
8/10/98: Switch illuminates biology's role
8/05/98: The presumption of innocence and the American way
8/03/98: An American hero
7/29/98: Lock up those who need psychiatric care
7/24/98: Making the military more like us
7/22/98: The 'Net sex hoax... and us
7/20/98: Disappointed by Cosbys
7/15/98: Feelings, not morality, rule
7/10/98: Guns as the solution?
7/8/98: Teacher preacher
7/6/98: The China behind the headlines
7/1/98: What is the First Amendment for?
6/26/98: The Republican city
6/24/98: Poison pen
6/22/98: Clinton: inventing his own reality?
6/16/98: Senator mom?
6/12/98: Wisconsin: a trail blazer?
6/9/98: These girls say no to sex, yes to excellence
6/5/98: Lewinsky's ex-lawyer would feel right at home as Springer guest
6/2/98: English? Si; Republican? No!
5/29/98: The truth about women and work
5/27/98: Romance in the '90s
5/25/98:Taxing smokers for fun and profit
5/19/98: China's friend in the White House
5/15/98: Look out feminists: here comes the true backlash
5/12/98: The war process?
5/8/98: Where's daddy?
5/5/98: The joys of boys
5/1/98: Republicans move on education reform
4/28/98: Reagan was right
4/24/98: The key to Pol Pot
4/21/98: The patriot's channel
4/19/98: Child-care day can't replace mom
4/15/98: Tax time
4/10/98: Armey states obvious, gets clobbered
4/7/98: A nation complacent?
4/1/98: Bill Clinton's African adventure
3/27/98: Understanding Arkansas
3/24/98: Jerry Springer's America
3/20/98: A small step for persecuted minorities
3/17/98: Skeletons in every closet?
3/13/98: Clinton's idea of a fine judge
3/10/98: Better than nothing?
3/6/98: Of fingernails and freedom
3/3/98: Read JWR! :0)
2/27/98: Dumb and Dumber
2/24/98: Reagan reduced poverty more than Clinton
2/20/98: Rally Round the United Nations?
2/17/98: In Denial
2/13/98: Reconsidering Theism
2/10/98: Waiting for the facts?
2/8/98: Cat got the GOP's tongue?
2/2/98: Does America care about immorality?
1/30/98: How to judge Clinton's denials
1/27/98: What If It's Just the Sex?
1/23/98: Bill Clinton, Acting Guilty
1/20/98: Arafat and the Holocaust Museum
1/16/98: Child Care or Feminist Agenda?
1/13/98: What We Really Think of Abortion
1/9/98: The Dead Era of Budget Deficits Rises Again?
1/6/98: "Understandable" Murder and Child Custody
1/2/98: Majoring in Sex
12/30/97: The Spirit of Kwanzaa
12/26/97: Food fights (Games children play)
12/23/97: Does Clinton's race panel listen to facts?
12/19/97: Welcome to the Judgeocracy, where the law school elite overrules majority rule
12/16/97: Do America's Jews support Netanyahu?

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.