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Kenneth W. Starr (AP file photo)

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The Roots of Ken Starr's Morality Plays (Washington Post, March 2, 1998)

Key Player: Kenneth W. Starr

Starr's Convictions Aren't Open and Shut Case

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 1998; Page A01

"Resolve your personal inner conflicts," urges the middle-aged man on the video screen, inviting members of the congregation who need help to participate in an intense Christian recovery program to conquer their vices, whether alcoholism, sex addiction or overeating. Listening from one of the front pews is independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who has seen this video clip or versions like it almost every Sunday morning since he started attending McLean Bible Church nearly a decade ago.

It is a central mission of Starr's church -- finding the root of the sinner's pain -- and it is a theme that a regular parishioner like Starr cannot avoid, appearing as it does in brightly colored fliers advertising dozens of 12-step-style self-help groups.

This therapy-drenched message confounds the simple stereotype of Starr as pious crusader against President Clinton. If Starr is called religious, it is usually to show he's a puritanical zealot, a minister's son obsessed with rooting out sinners only to punish them. Yet here he is every Sunday morning, attending a church that shows great patience with sin, that treads the long path from redemption to relapse and back again, a place the pastor, who himself is a confessed former drug dealer, likes to call a "hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." Indeed, the path toward redemption offered to sinners at Starr's church is remarkably similar to the one that Clinton has chosen for himself -- regular prayer sessions with a circle of advisers who help the sinner heal his pain.

That a conservative like Starr would choose a church so open to the notion of recovery may at first seem incongruous. But like many religious conservatives, Starr is trapped in a stereotype of a type of Christianity that hasn't existed in America for over 30 years. Most evangelicals today attend churches like Starr's that have updated themselves, adding to the biblical fundamentalism of the '40s some of the new age-style therapy of the '70s.

A look inside Starr's church, and the religious journey that landed him there, provides a fuller understanding of how the independent counsel thinks about the moral matters that are the substance of his report to Congress. While most accounts have focused on the hidebound church of his father, Starr is probably by now more a product of a church like McLean Bible, a suburban megachurch where sinners are warned to repent but given plenty of hand-holding to achieve it.

Even with all its therapeutic professions, though, no one would mistake McLean Bible for a liberal church. While Starr declined to be interviewed about his religious beliefs, other prominent conservatives who know Starr and attend the church say they feel comfortable with its 12-step qualities because the psychological advice is guided by unwavering Christian principles -- no sex before marriage, no abortion or homosexuality and divorce only as a last resort. And the unspoken threat beneath the message of love and acceptance is that those who don't repent will suffer eternal punishment.

"They make sure the programs are consistent with a doctrinally sound, authoritative word of God," said Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), who also attends the church. "It's important to balance a Bible-based message with compassion and caring."

"It's a typical evangelical church for the suburbs," said Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 50,000 churches nationwide. "It's conservative, strictly following the Bible but adding a lot of emotional, self-help type programs, and run by a popular pastor."

If 5,000 families flock to McLean Bible on Sundays, it is mainly because of its magnetic pastor, Lon Solomon. Friendly and energetic, Solomon likes to make the church mirror its time, peppering his sermons with sitcom references to bring the Bible up to date. In 1991, Solomon split with McLean Bible's old leadership to create a new church, "a redemptive center and not a country club," as he describes it. He built a nondenominational church intended for people like him: a former drug-dealing, free-love hippie who was born Jewish and now believes Jesus is the messiah.

Solomon said he stays away from politics, and does not talk to Starr about the prosecutor's work. But many of his constituents read political messages into his sermons. Patty Schmidt of McLean recalled Solomon recently telling the congregation as part of a larger biblical lesson that lying to the American people is wrong, though he did not specifically mention the president.

Conservatives, too, see echoes of their own beliefs in the church's message. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) goes to McLean because it reminds him of the straight-backed churches in Oklahoma. "A lot of churches are just sort of a social gathering and don't really get into the scriptures," he said. He so enjoys Solomon's sermons that he takes detailed notes and draws on them for his own speeches.

While some Democrats also attend McLean Bible, Inhofe recognizes mostly Republicans in the pews, he said. In addition to Inhofe, Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) often attend, as well as dozens of Republican staff members and their families. "There's a built-in conservative bias, because the church encourages people to do things through the church as opposed to through government," Inhofe said.

Indeed, church members have at times shown open support for Starr. The Sunday after the Starr report became public, several members gathered around him outside to ask for autographs, according to four members who were there that day. Lately, an e-mail asking Christians to pray for Starr has been circulating among church members.

"I have a friend who is going through hell right now," Sealy Yates, a California lawyer and friend of Starr's, wrote in his e-mail. "My friend is also my brother in Christ. I believe he is in trouble with the world because he desires to represent Christ well in the task to which he has been called." The letter ends with a request to pray for Starr and his family.

After receiving thousands of responses, some critical, Yates sent out a second letter, which included a note from Starr. "I am grateful -- and deeply moved -- by your lifting my family up in prayer, especially at this difficult and challenging time for all of us," Starr wrote.

Yates, who has talked to Starr about his faith, said he's been misunderstood as a "religious fanatic." While Starr is animated by his conviction about Christian truth in everything he does, Yates said he has no animus toward the president. "I feel quite confident that he would say he has forgiven the president," said Yates. "But that does not relieve Judge Starr of his responsibilities in office. There is a difference between forgiveness and the natural consequences of our acts. Because we say sorry does not mean we don't pay the consequences. Because Judge Starr is doing his job does not mean he does not love and forgive and care for Bill Clinton."

The Starrs joined McLean Bible in the early '90s, just after Solomon put his mark on the church. For a few years, Starr taught Sunday school for children until he was appointed independent counsel in 1994 and his workload became too heavy. His daughter joined youth programs at the church, and still comes with him to church when she is home from college at Stanford University. Otherwise, he attends the 9:15 service with his wife, Alice, who was born Jewish. Solomon would not comment on the Starrs' participation, saying he has a gentlemen's agreement with Starr to guard his privacy.

For settled suburban families like the Starrs, the church offers a host of youth programs, adult Bible classes and group summer outings. But while Starr may not have participated in the therapeutic programs of redemption, they are an integral part of the church's message.

"We house sinners at McLean Bible," Solomon said. "If you want clean don't come to our hospital, where there's vomit on the floor, blood on the walls and intestines in the garbage can. We are comfortable being messy, comfortable with people coming in smelling like alcohol."

Obsessive behavior, such as overeating or sex addiction, is a negative, un-Christian way of coping with pain, Solomon explained. It keeps people angry at God for letting them be abused. By teaching people they don't have to rely only on themselves, that God forgives them and helps them, they can heal. In unblocking their mental pain, Solomon believes he is freeing them to have a fruitful relationship with Christ.

The alcoholic, or chronic cheater, or liar, or depressive, or sex addict would be ushered to one of the many weekly recovery sessions the church offers. There, he would commit to a program much like the one Clinton has pledged to follow. First, he would have to confess his sin, explained Pam Dozer, a counselor at McLean Bible. Though he'd be given a timetable for recovery, his counselors would expect him to succumb to his bad habits a few more times, complete with the lies to cover them up. The counselor would remain patient. "We don't throw people out of therapy," said Dozer. "We don't beat them up or condemn them. They have to feel love and acceptance."

This very modern religious stance, equal parts condemnation and forgiveness, is a logical place for Starr to have ended up. He was raised in the stern and isolated 1950s Church of Christ of the upper South, whose elders forbade not only drinking, dancing and playing music, but also believed only those who followed the strict letter of the Bible would go to heaven. But midway through college, his life changed course, as he left a Church of Christ school to go to George Washington University. Eventually, he married a Jewish woman and became an ambitious lawyer in Washington -- not the typical path of a Church of Christ minister's son from Texas.

To achieve what he has, Starr would have had to break out of the narrow religious world of his youth. His father, Willie Douglas Starr, was known as among the most austere of preachers in an already severe religion, his neighbors recalled. In high school, Starr and his Church of Christ friends stayed a group apart, animated by the conviction that only they would be saved. "We really did feel like we were special, like we were right and everybody else was wrong," recalled Sam Millsap Jr., an old high school friend.

Harding College in Searcy, Ark., where Starr spent two years in the early 1960s, was known as the academic seat of the radical anti-communist right. In addition to an hour of chapel and an hour of Bible class every day, Starr and his college roommates led devotionals in their dorms at night and sold Bibles during the summer.

God was everywhere in Starr's early life, but with a very different temperament than the God of McLean Bible.

"There was not much sense that God loves us and God's grace is there for us, that if we screw up we will still be loved," recalled Richard Hughes, a religion professor at Pepperdine who attended Harding during the same years as Starr. But Hughes can understand how Starr would have settled into a more modernized religion than that of his youth.

"By now," said Hughes, "Most of us have drifted far away from those roots."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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