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Clinton’s pastor sees struggle for nation’s soul

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Pastoring a president acknowledged by political allies as untrustworthy and condemned by opponents as a serial adulterer, perjurer and obstructer of justice is, in the view of United Methodist minister, the Rev. Phillip Wogaman, “a bit of a minefield.”

“Your pastoral zone must be kept personal and private,” Wogaman told students at Union Theological Seminary here Feb. 8. It was the day on which his parishioner, Bill Clinton, was attending the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan while the U.S. Senate weighed whether the president was fit to keep his job. “It’s a privilege to be his pastor. But it’s stressful, too,” Wogaman said.

Wogaman became senior pastor at Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church in 1992 after 26 years of teaching Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. Not long after assuming the pulpit, the Secret Service arrived “to check out” the church should Clinton win the White House. Foundry Church was only a mile away, and Hillary Rodham Clinton is a churchgoing United Methodist. Her husband is a Southern Baptist.

In the wake of the president’s admission last August of an “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky, Wogaman became a member of Clinton’s three-person inner circle of spiritual advisers. Wogaman said Clinton’s confession caused him “deep disappointment over the president’s conduct.”

Prior to that time, did the pastor believe Clinton was telling the truth when he vehemently denied having had an affair with the former White House intern? “I was skeptical,” Wogaman told NCR in a luncheon interview.

Wogaman sees the nation in “grave crisis” over Clinton’s conduct, even if the president is acquitted. As a social ethicist and frequent writer and speaker on public issues, he feels called to contribute to a moral debate that he says will be waged for years in schools of public affairs, law and journalism, and -- he hopes -- in seminaries and pulpits.

For that reason he wrote From the Eye of the Storm: A Pastor to the President Speaks Out (139 pages, Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.) between mid-September and the Nov. 2 midterm elections. The book finds its fire in two events that occurred Sept. 11: the White House Prayer Breakfast at which Clinton acknowledged his sin and expressed his remorse and need for forgiveness, and the public release of the Starr Report.

Wogaman attended the prayer breakfast, as he had on other occasions. The next day he agreed to be a panelist on a television talk show responding to the Starr Report and to the breakfast. His co-panelists and the moderator all condemned “the sinner-in-chief” and called for his ouster.

Wogaman thought the two events showed two impulses at work: one emphasizing repentance, forgiveness and the spiritual unity of the nation, and the other focusing on judgment and condemnation. He asked himself which of these really represents the nation. “It was as if the country was struggling to define its own soul,” he said.

With regard to Clinton’s infidelity, Wogaman told his congregation in a Sept. 13 sermon that in 42 years of marriage, “I haven’t done any of that. But I have to tell you that if the president of the United States were here [he was not in church that day], I could not stand in front of him and say, ‘Bill Clinton, I’m a better man than you are.’ ”

Wogaman believes that no one can say that -- all are in need of forgiveness, and repentance can take a lifetime. The surest antidote to the political cynicism that is sweeping the nation in the aftermath of the scandal is the doctrine of original sin, he said. To those who cannot now forgive the president and who feel totally “let down” by his behavior, Wogaman advised waiting “until the dust clears and then look at the bigger picture. No one wants to be judged by his faults alone,” he added.

Acknowledging that Americans yearn for “the psychological and spiritual security of moral absolutes,” and that they are finding few, if any, of them in this situation, the pastor advised rereading the story of the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned when Jesus appeared on the scene. “What if Jesus had not stopped, if he’d agreed with her accusers or been a strict interpreter of the law of the time? What if they had stoned her to death, in keeping with the law? What would the effect of that have been on the moral life and development of the people of that village?” he asked.

Wogaman finds the nation at a similar crossroads. “The question is: Which of these, law or love, must give way when they are in conflict? Such a question forces us to reach deeply into the moral, spiritual and legal traditions that have formed us as a people,” he wrote.

“When this whole thing shifts down, if it doesn’t leave us more loving and caring, it will leave us worse off as a nation,” he said.

What does one tell the children if one should choose love and compassion over law and punishment?

“Tell them that no one is perfect -- not even George Washington,” Wogaman said. “Tell them that when they do something wrong -- and this was a lot wrong -- they should apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Tell them when they ask, ‘How can you love someone after something like that?’ that we love one another because we are loved. It is God who first loves us.”

If Americans are to forgive their errant leader, what can they expect from him in return? Wogaman believes Clinton and the nation will have to “work very hard at reconciliation. But I have confidence in his presidency and believe he will act chastely and soberly.”

Although Wogaman said he cannot violate any pastoral confidences and reveal why he or anyone should be assured that Clinton’s contrition is genuine, Wogaman hinted that Clinton may grow in candor with the people who have stood by him. “The American people will be in for a confirmation of their best perceptions of him.”

For the nation to forgive their wayward leader at this time would advance the nation morally, Wogaman believes. Wogaman suggests a soul-searching debate on American culture, which he hopes would include consideration of the disconnect between sex and love, the role of pornography, the right to privacy and how “mean-spiritedness” and attack ads contribute to our political character.

If the project appears overwhelming, the pastor noted, “the devil is in the details. And so are the angels.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999