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Clinton’s immorality not confined to sex life


In the late 1970s conservative evangelicals came out of a long period of withdrawal from American public life and began to organize politically. This re-politicization of conservative Christians caught many liberals by surprise.

In the first half of the ’80s Christian right groups, such as the Christian Voice and Moral Majority, were on the ascendancy. They took advantage of neglected sources of political power. They registered millions of conservative Christians to vote, became active in local Republican Party politics and organized lobbyists in Washington for their own agendas. They became a political power to be reckoned with.

One major thesis of the religious right was an affinity between immorality and liberal politics. During the ’60s, the sexual revolution and leftist politics in favor of civil rights and in opposition to the war in Vietnam seemed to be linked. The Christian right concluded that a breakdown in traditional American political values and traditional family values went together. Those who wanted to curtail American military power for Third World interventions and who sought prison reform, rights for women, gays and welfare recipients were perceived to harbor a disrespect for hierarchy in family and society. For the Christian right, the disintegration of the family and liberal politics were cut from the same cloth.

One way the Christian right sought to establish “morality” in public life was to issue moral report cards on members of Congress. Those who supported liberal politics, were against apartheid in South Africa, were against aid to the contras in Nicaragua, supported reproductive choice and affirmative action and opposed prayer in schools were given negative report cards, while those who supported the opposite policies got high marks. The results were incongruous. Members of Congress of obvious personal integrity such as Fr. Robert Drinan flunked “morality,” while some with known records of sexual infidelity, alcoholism and financial corruption scored high.

The new right of the ’80s tied together two different forms of conservatism that had not necessarily been linked before: right-wing political and economic theory and religious conservatism. To believe in the infallibility of the Bible and to be against feminism, gay rights and abortion were linked to being for a strong military, opposing communism and advocating tax cuts. This meant that a sincere evangelical like Jimmy Carter was discounted as a Christian because his religious principles led him to liberal politics, while a fiscal and military conservative like Ronald Reagan who did not go to church and whose grasp of Christian principles was weak at best was touted as the candidate of the Christian right.

By the late ’80s the inadequacy of this kind of moralism in politics was evident. The televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Baker were exposed for their marital infidelities and financial corruption. Yet the Christian right did not learn the lesson. Personal immorality among liberals was seen as endemic, while among conservatives it was an occasional lapse for which one could be forgiven.

Bill Clinton seemed the ideal candidate for this linking of personal immorality and liberal politics. The Christian right set out to bring him down by exposing his sexual escapades. As it happened, many across the political spectrum were tarred by the same brush, while Clinton was spared removal from office. The upshot is an American public thoroughly disgusted by the politicization of personal sexuality and disposed to reenforce the separation of private morality from public competence.

Those on the liberal left politically should not necessarily rejoice in such a separation. The relation of personal morality and politics is complex. One who lives a strict moral life might also be an inquisitioner, ready to burn dissenters, while a revolutionary leader such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega turned out to be a sexual abuser of his stepchild.

Yet liberals need to reflect on how morality and politics might be connected from their side. Do we need to recognize a relationship between morality in a deeper sense of personal integrity and liberal politics in the sense of concern for justice in society?

Clinton’s “immorality” is about more than his sexual infidelity. It connects to his entire personality, more concerned with opportunism and the quick fix than with consistent principles. The same man who lied about his sexual life also prefers to solve complex international problems by bombing rather than with difficult, long-term work for change. The “seducer” personality in Clinton not only betrayed his wife and child, but also those who looked to him for justice in areas such as welfare rights. Are these unconnected? I think not.

However complex the relationship of moral personality to politics, one should not be surprised that someone who will betray his wife and friends will also betray the poor.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999