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Scandal Forces Religious Issues Into Public Eye

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page A17

For months, a phalanx of lawyers, advisers and friends have taken to the airwaves to angrily reject suggestions that President Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But in the last few days, as Clinton signaled and then acknowledged that the allegations were true, the two strongest voices asking the nation to forgive the president have been the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church, where Clinton worships most Sundays when he's in town.

Their emergence reflects the transformation of a months-long political scandal into a morality tale in which questions of confession, contrition and forgiveness traditionally the concern of pastors and theologians have suddenly become the focus of public debate.

Like an errant parishioner, Clinton now finds himself publicly scrutinized by religious leaders, a kind of pastoral treatment he in some ways has invited. Clinton regularly attends church and prayer breakfasts, and since becoming president has turned for moral counsel to a string of spiritual advisers, from Rex Horne, the pastor of the Southern Baptist church in Little Rock to which he belongs, to evangelist Billy Graham.

The defining theme of his second term came from another adviser, Robert Schuller, a world-famous evangelist who appears on "The Hour of Power" show. Schuller introduced Clinton to his favorite biblical passage, Isaiah 58:12, and Clinton began calling himself the "healer of the breach."

On the Sunday before his testimony the only image of Clinton was coming in and out of Wogaman's church, holding his wife's hand. That night, as he tried to convey a picture of a tightknit family in pain but forgiving, he made Jackson, a sometime political rival with whom he has often had a tense relationship, his unofficial spokesman.

The next morning, Clinton aides told reporters that the president had been reading Psalm 51, a passage that begins "Have mercy upon me, O God . . . blot out my transgressions." And one memorable punctuation in his statement Monday night was "This is between me, the two people I love the most . . . and our God."

Jackson went to the White House Sunday night, he said, at Chelsea Clinton's request, and spent two hours with her and Hillary Clinton, leaving at midnight. He and Wogaman were among the first people Clinton called after delivering his statement Monday night.

Wogaman said yesterday that he interrupted a vacation in the Adirondacks to return to Washington because he felt he "had to be here" for Clinton. In his view, the president apologized sufficiently, both to his family and the nation, in his Monday night statement.

Now, Wogaman said, the appropriate response is forgiveness, and the place where the nation should find guidance on how to treat the president is 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient and kind. . . . Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. . . . Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" – a passage often read at Christian weddings.

In their brief phone conversation Monday night, Wogaman said Clinton told him he "felt a bit of relief, because he had bottomed out." Once a person reaches that low point, only "love and hope" can help them heal, while "a context of vindictiveness" is likely to stunt their recovery, said Wogaman.

By speaking for Clinton, Wogaman said he hopes to help him carve out a private space to work out his troubles with his wife and daughter and God, out of the media's judgmental eye.

And while he said he does not condone Clinton's moral lapse, Wogaman said he would not defend him if he did not believe it was a minor aspect of his whole moral character.

"If I didn't have confidence in the essential goodness of a person I would maintain a discreet silence and not return calls from the press," he said.

Both Jackson and Wogaman compared Clinton not just to any sinners, but to the most extravagant ones: King David, Adam and Solomon. King David not only slept with Bathsheba but sent her husband to his death in battle, and – they both point out – still kept his kingdom. The story of the president's involvement with Lewinsky, Jackson said yesterday, follows the same line as the saga of Adam and Eve: "from original sin to original shame to original lie."

But, he pointed out, God eventually forgave them.

But while the two ministers may reflect the attitude of many Americans toward the scandal, they themselves are hardly in the mainstream of Protestant ministers.

Wogaman has long been controversial for his support of homosexuals, and his writings on racism and pacifism. Former senator Robert J. Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, left his church in 1995 after a conservative group issued a critical report on Wogaman's liberal politics and theology.

Clinton first visited the church one Sunday morning in the winter of 1993, when a heavy snowstorm closed most other churches in downtown Washington. He came that day and stayed, because he enjoys the "informal atmosphere," said the Rev. Walter Shropshire, who gave the sermon Clinton heard last Sunday. Hillary Clinton, unlike her husband, is a Methodist, and Chelsea belonged to the church's youth group before she left for college.

Shropshire is more restrained than Wogaman in defending the president. "I am disappointed that he began to slip into blaming the actions of other people," he said. "I would have been happier if he had stuck with a mea culpa, 'what do I personally need to do.' "

Shropshire said when he was listening to Clinton's statement, he experienced a "deja vu" to an earlier scandal he had been through, when Foundry's then-head minister confessed to a number of affairs with parishioners, and "when it came time to leave . . . also started to blame other people, and that's what I found troubling about President Clinton's statement [Monday]."

Shropshire said he hoped the president would seek psychological counseling to understand his own behavior, and figure out "why the most powerful man in the world is suddenly overcome by lust for a young woman."

Other religious leaders yesterday were more critical of Clinton.

"I did not see him look into the camera and say, 'I was wrong and I ask for forgiveness,' " said the Rev. Jerry Falwell on MSNBC. "I did not hear him take the burden of responsibility for his staff who stood with him." While he agreed that all Christians should forgive the president, Falwell also said the president should step down. "He is no longer worthy to fulfill this office," he said.

Jackson dismissed Falwell's misgivings. "One need not roll a peanut on his nose and wallow in the mud to show contrition," he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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