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Sermon Challenges Clinton, Public

By Marcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998; Page D1

The chief priest at Washington National Cathedral, in a sermon he called "Fig Leaves, Politics and Christian Faith," yesterday challenged President Clinton's decision to treat his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky as a private matter – and chastised the American public for seeming to judge morality based on the nation's economic prosperity.

"The real power of politics is moral," the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, dean at the Northwest Washington cathedral, told several hundred worshipers at the 11 a.m. service. "Therefore, in leadership, immodesty or immorality is never private for it affects the ability of a people to grant permission to lead."

At the same time, Baxter said, drawing an analogy with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, society's obsession with material wealth has allowed it to tolerate moral irresponsibility.

"What has happened to a nation more concerned about its wallet than its soul?" Baxter asked, referring to opinion polls and media interviews that suggest the public is inclined to tolerate Clinton's now-acknowledged sexual liaison with Lewinsky because the economy is doing so well.

Baxter said he decided Tuesday, the day after Clinton told the nation in a televised address that he had "misled" people about his relationship with Lewinsky, to use the highly visible pulpit at the cathedral to address what he termed the public's "conflicting views" about Clinton's behavior.

"What has happened, regardless of the politics around it, is morally unacceptable," Baxter said in an interview after the sermon. He added that several worshipers who greeted him after the service told him his words had not been strong enough.

Baxter, who has been the Episcopal cathedral's administrator since 1991, previously has delivered special sermons to comment on the police beating of Rodney King, a national gay rights march in Washington and the more recent Million Man March in the nation's capital.

He stressed yesterday that his sermon was not meant to judge a president he said has demonstrated "moral courage" on such issues as welfare reform and affirmative action, but to meet his religious obligation to offer guidance. He delivered, in essence, a dual message: People should not give up on Clinton and "the soul of our nation will not heal" unless moral failings are acknowledged without excuse.

In his 20-minute sermon, Baxter said the fig leaves in the biblical story about Adam and Eve are a symbol of the kind of modesty that should remain a barometer of a moral life.

"We do not expect perfection in every phase of our living," he said, "but we do expect, including in sexual matters, responsible behavior, self-control and respect for the sensitivities of one another."

Addressing the children in the audience, Baxter said that a specific sin should not be used to measure a person's total worth and that children should look for guidance in the Ten Commandments.

"Someone once said, no one has ever destroyed the Ten Commandments, but the neglect of them has destroyed many persons," Baxter said. "The Ten Commandments are not a trap, they are a map."

Some at the service, including visiting tourists, said later they were glad Baxter's sermon was devoted to what they called a national crisis that people can't seem to stop talking about. Yet a few were surprised that a minister would take such a straightforward approach to such a sensitive matter as sexual sin.

"I think the sermon was excellent," said Anne Simonet, 40, of Minnesota. It "matched my own feelings. Something has happened to the moral fabric of our lives. We are all responsible, and we have to go back to the basics."

Most worshipers uniformly applauded Baxter's comments about responsibility and self-control. But their interpretation of his sermon seemed to change based on their personal views about the president. Some were convinced that Baxter thought Clinton should never be trusted again. Others said the minister was trying to tell them to forgive Clinton.

Darrell Pearson, 53, a resident of Troy, Ala., walked away with yet another view: "I think he was saying that God will judge and that we as a people need to let God do that."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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