At Prayer Breakfast
By Hanna Rosin
When President Clinton steps before an audience of 125 religious leaders at his prayer breakfast this morning, he will be addressing a group of ministers conflicted about how to respond to a White House sex scandal and under intense pressure from their own peers to uphold strict moral standards.
Many of those invited to the annual event expect Clinton, who takes comfort in spiritual settings, to make his most humble apology yet. And they were anticipating brief remarks, followed by a discussion that would feel something like a Bible study, where the errant parishioner and his room full of pastors hash out the very human questions of fallen nature, confession, and forgiveness.
Among the invitees at the prayer breakfast are a core group of supporters who are prepared to accept the president's apology and forgive him, and who believe it is not their place to judge him further. But the supporters are also feeling pressure from some fellow ministers and in some cases members of their own congregations, who believe it is the religious community's responsibility to openly condemn the president for setting a bad example for the nation. By going to the breakfast and remaining silent, say the critics, the president's religious allies are providing moral cover for his failings.
"There is a lot of pressure on us to say the words of censure," said Joan Brown Campbell, executive director of the National Council of Churches, who has been to several of the annual prayer breakfasts. "People want to make sure we understand that this man has sinned and that he needs to be punished. There is almost a meanness of spirit around that," she said.
Other defenders such as the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church where Clinton worships most Sundays, said that adding to the chorus of critics will only stunt the president's, and the nation's, recovery.
"I think enough condemnation has been heaped on the president without my adding to the burden he must bear," said Wogaman. "I personally want to build up and not tear down, and I think only that will contribute to the moral health of the nation."
But even they stopped short of a total endorsement. Wogaman wanted to make it clear he did not think the president's transgression was "minor." And Campbell said the president needed to make a "deeper, more profound confession in religious language" and "be emptied of himself, say 'I have done something terribly, terribly wrong.'‚"
The White House characterized the invitee list as diverse, with representatives of many religions and races: Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, among them. The list included a variety of leaders from different traditions such as Imam W.D. Mohammed of the Muslim American Society, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam, T.D. Jakes, a popular black preacher in Dallas, Jesse L. Jackson, several reform rabbis, and Father Leo O'Donovan, president of Georgetown University.
But most of those contacted seemed to be from the more liberal traditions of their religions, and more inclined to be angry at the president's critics than at the president.
Some religious leaders not invited to the breakfast have criticized the president and his supporters, even calling for his resignation. These critics were wary of the president's contrition, arguing that he tricks the nation into believing he feels remorse by using the language of faith to his own advantage.
"There is a profound awareness of the need not to let religion be used to cover up some rather gross problems," said Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic magazine First Things. "I hope that whoever is meeting with him will have indelibly imprinted in their minds the distinction due the office and the moral shambles of the man who occupies it."
At a prayer breakfast with Clinton last spring, Neuhaus says he and other critics convinced the audience of about 5,000 religious leaders not to clap when the president left the room, but to merely stand in silence.
The strongest criticism comes from leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, Clinton's own denomination and the largest Protestant group. This week, Paige Patterson, president of the convention, called on Clinton to resign "before he is instrumental in corrupting all our young people."
A movement among Southern Baptist leaders has built up recently calling on Rex Horne, minister of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, where Clinton is a member, to discipline the president, a process that often results in expulsion from the church. So far, Horne has resisted expelling the president, arguing that he prefers "never to close the door to any parishioner, whether it be a pauper or the president," said spokesman David Napier.
The president's supporters said religious critics were taking advantage of Clinton's crisis, and using their moral authority to mask their political motivations. Members of the Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of liberal groups, pointed to recent television ads by Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council who is running for president, saying Clinton's behavior has "taught our children that lying is okay, that fidelity is old-fashioned, and that character doesn't count."
A spokesman for Bauer said he was merely doing what he's always done, and "focusing on children."
Many of those invited hoped the group would not get stuck on the scandal and move on to other topics. "I'm not going to provide moral cover for the president," said Rachel Mikva, a reform rabbi in New York and daughter of former White House counsel Abner Mikva. "But I would love it if we could focus on the many other more important issues facing our nation."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company