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Rev. J. Philip Wogaman


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Direct Access: Rev. J. Philip Wogaman

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church, was one of the religious leaders who counseled President Clinton in the hours after his Aug. 17 national speech about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Wogaman is also the author of a new book, "From the Eye of the Storm: The Pastor to the President Speaks Out," about the moral dimensions of impeachment. He talked with users about the moral questions in impeachment. The transcript follows. Welcome to today's second discussion in a day-long series of impeachment chats. Welcome, Rev. Wogaman, to our forum. To start things off, could you tell us a little bit about your book and what prompted you to write it?

Rev. Wogaman: I was asked to write the book by my regular publisher, Westminster John Knox Press. The publishers felt that my background as a scholar and teacher in Christian ethics, combined with my present service as pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, equipped me to help people sort out the present crisis with the Clinton presidency.

Madison, Wis.: How is it possible to be forgiven until the sinner has acknowledged the sin?

Rev. Wogaman: People can be forgiven even before they acknowledge the sin. For instance, for Christians there is the statement of Jesus from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Clearly, those who were doing that terrible deed didn't yet understand its evil, but still they were forgiven. In the case of the president, he has acknowledged and repented his sin.

College Park, Md.: In your recent conversations with him, what has been the president's mood? Does he truly seem to understand and grasp the horror and profound embarrassment of what may happen to him on Thursday, and how is he dealing with that?

Rev. Wogaman: I have to rule out any discussion of personal interactions with the president. You must understand that pastoral conversations are sacred and privileged. In general, I believe him to be truly repentant, and working at needed changes.

Billinge, England: Do the religious leaders who counselled Mr. Clinton at his prayer breakfast now feel let down by his refusal to be truthful?

Rev. Wogaman: My impression is that the people who were with him at the prayer breakfast continue to believe in the sincerity of his repentance. There remains considerable dispute about whether he is being "truthful," but he certainly has acknowledged having misled the American people. I know that there are some who would not be satisfied with any phrasing of that, short of an outright confession of perjury. I think he has probably apologized enough.

Issaquah, Wash.: Will you ask the president to resign for the good of the country?

Rev. Wogaman: I believe it would be a tragedy for the country for the president to resign. For him to be forced out of office either through resignation or action by the U.S. Senate would lead to a more deeply polarized American public life. There would be very great bitterness on the part of his many supporters who would feel that he had been railroaded. I would not think of advising him to resign.

I think it would be especially tragic for him to be removed from office on such a partisan basis.

Washington, D.C.: I get so angry when I think about the hatred in the hearts of the Republicans pursuing this matter, I just want to spit. Do you get angry, too? Does the president? What would Jesus do?

Rev. Wogaman: I can understand the anger and frustration you must feel. Much of the process leading us to this point has been unfair. The great danger now is that impeachment could become a more usable weapon in political conflict. I think we all need to reach more deeply into a spirit of compassion and a willingness to forgive.

I do not know what Jesus would say, of course. I do know that Jesus was very compassionate and that he was most angry himself over the sins of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

Potomac, Md.: What is your opinion on the level of contrition that Mr. Clinton has publicly announced? Is there more that he could have said to get his enemies to accept his apologies to the public?

Rev. Wogaman: I frankly doubt that anything further would have made much difference.

Hanover, Md.: Isn't it very unethical for you to parlay your role as a counselor and minister of the spirit into that of a celebrity author and political advocate?

Rev. Wogaman: I do not think of myself as a "celebrity author"! I know that any prominence anybody has on this earth is of short duration anyway. I am deeply concerned about the moral and spiritual effects of decisions made in the public sphere, and therefore I feel it is very important to speak out when we have something to say. I do want it to be known that I am not receiving any royalty income from this book. I feel it truly would be unethical to profit by so great a national tragedy. Therefore, royalties from the book will go to the church and other charitable causes.

University Park, Pa.: Regardless of whether or not the president is contrite about his misdeeds, don't we as a democratic nation have a responsibility to demand virtuous leaders and punish them severely for their misdeeds? Plato says that without a virtuous leader, we can't have a virtuous society. Considering the moral malaise our society seems to be in, do we not need to expect more virtue now than ever before from our leaders?

Rev. Wogaman: Plato is right, but the essence of virtue is love. We cannot expect to restore virtue in an unloving way. A punitive attitude only deepens the hardness of a society's moral life. I believe the way out of this morass, both for the president and for us, is to mark the misbehavior with an appropriate reprimand or censure by Congress, and then work for restoration. Don't forget, that in very much of his life, President Clinton is a deeply virtuous person. I caution all of us not to judge anybody by their most conspicuous flaws. In these matters, we all need to grow morally together.

Springfield, Va.: Do you think it ethically or morally right for Henry Hyde, an admitted adulterer, to sit in judgment on President Clinton?

Rev. Wogaman: I do not criticize his performing his constitutional role as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, but at times I do wish he would show less partisanship and more restraint. His own admitted moral failings are a good reminder that we are all flawed human beings in need of forgiveness. That is an important thing to keep in mind as we now assess the president.

Cary, N.C.: In view of the many past indiscretions that Mr. Clinton has committed over many years, do you truly believe this is a highly moral man worthy of holding the office of President?

Rev. Wogaman: I do not stand in judgment of his basic character any more than I would try to judge the author of that question. I do have high confidence in the many fine qualities in President Clinton's character.

Pleasanton, Calif.: As a religious leader, how do you feel we could best encourage our presidents (and other leaders) to be moral men and women?

Is there any way to do this without immediate recourse to legal threat or fear of public humiliation?

Rev. Wogaman: The public humiliation has already occurred, of course. I believe a climate of forgiveness, or of what we Christians call grace, is the kind of climate in which moral growth is possible. People grow most when they sense that they are loved. Misbehavior has to be corrected, but moral growth is always measured by an increase in love.

I'm impressed by the number of people who believe that harsh punishment is the only way to improve morality. I don't believe that is psychologically or spiritually sound, even though there is some room for punishment or correction.

Blue Grass, Va.: As a fellow Methodist pastor I have struggled with my desire to forgive and move on and the effect that forgiveness with no negative repercussions will have on so many people in America that are watching this closely. Cheap Grace, after all, is just that.

Rev. Wogaman: Dear Brother Pastor:

Yield to your instinct to forgive. It's right, it's biblical, it's redemptive. There already have been plenty of repercussions. Responsible commentators have been advocating a further repercussion in the form of a congressional reprimand or censure, and I support that. This is not "cheap Grace." I'm afraid that the punitive attitudes of some people now represent no grace at all. In Christian theology, Grace is actually free -- not even cheap. But it does entail responsibility to turn away from sin. I believe the president is working hard on that. Perhaps we can work a little bit harder on the Grace side. Certainly when you became involved in the church, you must have never imagined that you would have to deal with all of this. What is the most prominent lesson that you've learned during the last few months? Has it affected at all your relationship with God?

Rev. Wogaman: Ask me again in five years, and perhaps I will have a nicely refined answer to what I recognize to be a good question! I feel I have learned more about the great importance of love and Grace in the life of a whole community. I have come to see the starkness of the alternatives: a nation divided by self-righteousness and partisan hostility, or a nation united through its yearning for its love and peace. I have struggled in my preaching to be responsible and myself to be gracious to those who disagree with me. I do feel closer to God through all of this, knowing that even in the midst of human tragedy, God is our friend.

Arlington, Va.: In January, after the Lewinsky allegations surfaced, the President appeared outside of church with a Bible in his hand. He did this as a publicity stunt to show Americans he is a "good guy." This is an image I will never forget. I felt as though he was "pimping" the Bible to serve his own selfish interests. Do you feel politicians, who do not live by the Gospel, should seek shelter in religion when they have violated the faith's basic principles?

Rev. Wogaman: I consider that far too harsh a judgment based upon far too little understanding of this man. We are all complex human beings, and political leaders perhaps more so than most. But the president of the United States takes the Bible very seriously and deeply regrets his failure to live up to it in those areas of his life that have been preoccupying the nation.

Louisville, Ky.: In spite of what I know to be a strong sentiment to the contrary in my home congressional district, my representative, Anne Northup, has announced her support for impeachment. How do I deal with the anger I feel at the utter unresponsiveness of this misguided impeachment process in Washington?

Rev. Wogaman: I share your disappointment in Congresswoman Northup's announced position and join you, perhaps, in the hope she might change her mind. I would communicate with her directly, as soon as you can, to continue expressing your views. If the House of Representatives actually votes for impeachment, I would communicate as forcefully as you can with your two U.S. senators. May I note in passing, that I am one of the Americans who will not be represented formally in any of the important votes because I am a citizen of Washington, D.C., which has no voting representation in Congress. I have never felt the frustration of that more than I do at this moment. In the long run, we need to restore a level of public life that rises above frustrations and recriminations and bitterness. That will be hard work. You mentioned that there was some room for punishment on the road to forgiving President Clinton. Of all the options that have been offered -- censure, impeachment, fine, resignation, nothing -- which do you think is most appropriate? Or would you suggest another path or focus for this national discussion?

Rev. Wogaman: I feel that a reprimand or censure is appropriate, to be followed by the president's renewed acknowledgement and acceptance of this judgment. I believe, as I have already said, removal from office would be highly disproportionate to the event and could even create a kind of constitutional crisis. I believe a fine, added to the Clinton family's already severe financial stress, would be unacceptably vindictive. We will never move beyond these things in a vindictive spirit. I believe President Ford offered wise advice to the nation some weeks ago, when he suggested a solemn reprimand procedure. My own concern, however, is more positive now. I want all of us to try and help the president. He is an extraordinarily gifted leader whose service to the nation and the world has already proven its effectiveness. He will continue to serve us well. Let's help him move beyond this sad chapter in his life and ours. That was the last question for Rev. Wogaman. Thank you very much for joining us, and thank you Rev. Wogaman for your time. Please stay tuned when another one of Clinton's religious counselor's, Rev. Jesse Jackson, joins us at 5:15 p.m. EST.

Rev. Wogaman: I want to thank those who have participated with these thoughtful questions. These are trying times for all of us. With mutual forbearance and a touch of God's Grace, we can yet move ahead and be strengthened as a nation.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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