Clergy Question Clinton's Moral Authority
and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 14, 1998; Page A11
Finding parallels in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the spiritual agonies of the Apostle Paul and the teachings of the Torah, religious leaders around Washington mined the presidential sex scandal for sermon subjects over the weekend.
Many spoke of the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for Bill Clinton the man, but some preached that Clinton the president deserved a harsher judgment.
"The question for me is this: Can President Clinton be forgiven?" said the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John's Church, in his sermon to the Episcopalian congregation that worships across Lafayette Square from the White House. "I want to say to you in unequivocal terms . . . that he can be forgiven by God."
However, Leon continued, "I don't think he has the moral authority to continue to lead this country."
With strained voices unable to conceal their distaste for this "depressing national scandal" and the "national misfortune," ministers and rabbis distinguished between Clinton the self-admitted sinner who had an affair with a young White House intern, then tried to cover it up and Clinton the commander-in-chief. While urging forgiveness for the sinner, they counseled careful deliberation in deciding the fate of the leader.
"Our president, Bill Clinton, lied to us," said Monsignor Russell L. Dillard, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church at 15th and V streets NW. "Now, are we supposed to forgive the president for lying to us? Yes, we are."
But first, Dillard said, Americans must determine whether Clinton, similar to the Prodigal Son, has hit bottom, suffered a "dark night of the soul" and deserves to be welcomed home.
Clinton, added the pastor of Washington's oldest black Catholic church, "will say to us in the most sincere of ways, 'I am sorry.' . . . It is up to each of us to decide if it is the truth he is telling or is it the Devil's word."
The presidential saga lacked heroes for the religious leaders to hold up as moral examples. Some ministers sounded equally scornful of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Congress and anyone who took glee in the president's misfortune or the details of the scandal. Starr sent a 453-page report to Congress last week saying there were 11 grounds for impeaching Clinton because of the president's alleged coverup of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Calling some of the president's critics on Capitol Hill "haughty congressmen," the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church at Ninth and P streets NW, told nearly 2,000 parishioners, "Those without sin cast the first stone."
At the Way of the Cross Church of Christ on Capitol Hill, Elder Ronald Frazier told several hundred people gathered for services that Clinton, in many ways, is like the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, when Paul was on a ship in a storm.
"It doesn't matter what the world says about President Clinton," Frazier said. "If God says you are forgiven, you are forgiven and we forgive you. It doesn't matter what your situation is, Jesus is able to get on the ship and turn that situation around."
On Friday evening, with the Starr report still fresh, congregants at the Bethesda Jewish Congregation on Bradley Boulevard listened to Rabbi Reeve Brenner's sermon.
"You all know we are in kind of a state of shock, aren't we everybody?" he said at the Reform service. "But I tell you I think there's a couple Jewish messages. . . . Don't judge your fellow human being until you've gotten there yourself. . . . Don't judge anybody so quickly, don't do snap judgments."
Brenner cautioned, "In the wake of all this, we've got to be very careful that we don't become sarcastic and cynical about people."
On Saturday morning, a portion of the Torah, a parchment scroll that includes scripture, was read at the Silver Spring Jewish Center service on Arcola Avenue. The reading during the Orthodox service, which addressed 12 blessings and curses, had previously been planned. But Rabbi Herzel Kranz noted how applicable it was to Clinton's situation.
He read remarks on the readings by a 12th century commentator known as Rushbaum: "There can be no contradictions between public and private morality; a nation that considers it acceptable to sin in private will inevitably see erosion in its morality."
Some congregation leaders found bleak meaning in Clinton's high poll ratings. "We have not cared whether the president lied to us as long as we are somehow impressed with his performance," said Leon. "Maybe we have lost our moral capacity for moral outrage . . . as long as the economy keeps humming along."
But Leon expressed hope that the scandal may turn out to be "heaven-sent for us, the public of America. Because sometimes it takes a rude shock to wake up our national conscience. . . . This depressing scandal may represent our best chance in the last few years at reinvigorating our shared belief in a moral code."
Not everyone in the faith community wanted to risk sullying their pulpits with the subject.
"I am not going to talk about that!" Bishop James Silver, pastor of Bible Way Temple on New Jersey Avenue NW, admonished about 300 people during his 8 a.m. service yesterday. "I hope I don't see you on TV in line at the Government Printing Office buying that garbage that Starr turned in. Am I making myself clear?"
As those gathered shouted "Amen" and shook their heads, Silver said, "You have the story, so why would you want to read something that smacks of pornography. Do you hear what I am saying!"
Staff writers Allan Lengel and Fern Shen contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company