The Clinton scandal is an occasion for ethical reflection, but it is far from the most important issue facing ethicists.
Professional ethicists are sure to get mileage for years from analysis of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment trial. But how well can ethicists, and religious ethicists in particular, respond to such a crisis in "real time," and help clarify both the issues at stake and the next steps that should be taken?
Two recent books, offering strikingly divergent perspectives on the Clinton scandal, provide primary evidence with which to answer those questions. The first (From the Eye of the Storm: A Pastor to the President Speaks Out [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press], 1998), was written by J. Philip Wogaman, a respected academic ethicist who now holds the perhaps unenviable position of pastor to the President. The second volume (Judgment Day At the White House: A Critical Declaration Exploring Moral Issues and the Political Use and Abuse of Religion, edited by Gabriel Fackre [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans], 1999) consists of ruminations from both signatories and critics of a "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency," dated December 1, 1998, and signed by over 140 scholars, the bulk of whom are faculty members at historically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant seminaries.
The Declaration itself is an unimpressive document, woodenly written and lacking a clear statement of what the signers think should be done in the Clinton case (other than a platitudinous call for "national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division" on the part of Congress and the country in the impeachment debates). The Declaration's fundamental contention is that "serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage." The lightning rod for this charge is the Presidential Prayer Breakfast (an annual ecumenical gathering of over 100 religious leaders) that on September 11, 1998, featured a public display of contrition by the President for his recently revealed misconduct. Clinton's words were reportedly well-received by the religious leaders, many of whom personally offered words of "spiritual support" for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. The implicit claim of the Declaration is that Clinton used the occasion to dupe the clergy present and to forward his own political advantage. (It might be asked whether what happened at the 1998 Prayer Breakfast was different only in degree from past breakfasts. The willingness of the American religious establishment to participate in publicity stunts designed to place politicians in a favorable light hardly began with the Clinton presidency.) The Declaration goes on to decry the debasement of public trust and ethical norms which the President's behavior is believed to have engendered, going so far as to claim that the crisis raised the question of "whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost."
The Declaration, unfortunately, does not make clear whether the ones in need of hearing these exhortations are church leaders who have been "duped" by Clinton, other academics, the media and the public at large, or the President himself. Many of the specific claims are effectively placed in doubt by Declaration critics Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale University and Lewis Smedes and Glen Harold Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary in their contributions to the volume. (For instance, the Declaration criticizes the publicity given to Clinton's ongoing pastoral meetings with a team of three ministers, but as Stassen points out, it was the ministers, not Clinton, who informed the public that these meetings were taking place.) Equally troubling, the Declaration presumes, implicitly, to know that Clinton's contrition, as expressed on September 11 and other dates, could not be sincere. (To his credit, one signatory, Max Stackhouse, explicitly expresses doubt on this point, while Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University allows that "I suspect Clinton was as sincere as he could be. …