Will Clinton Choose Honor or Power?

November 22, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--Once there was a politician who got into a car wreck. His first political instinct was to get out of the car and shake the hand of every bystander.

That seems to have been Bill Clinton's reaction to the great car wreck of an election he got caught in. Unfortunately, the first hand he came to for shaking was Pat Robertson's.

Warned by Newt Gingrich that the White House must now compromise with Congress, President Clinton went in for some pre-emptive groveling to the Religious Right, saying that he might support a prayer-in-school amendment if the prayer were voluntary.

His White House staff scrambled to undo the appearance of capitulation. Abner Mikva, a fine man and the new White House damage controller, became positively Eisenhowerian in his effort to unsay the said: ''The president was simply trying to reflect the fact that on some pieces of the issue there are indications he could support a compromise.''

The president's defenders say he was always in favor of voluntary prayer, though not by amendment. That is beside the point. The question is whether Mr. Clinton wants to lose, if necessary, on questions of principle he shares with his Democratic base, or will he try to save himself by swinging all over the place like a gymnast afraid that every rope around him is fraying?

To proclaim that one has abandoned the Supreme Court's reading of the Constitution is no way to maintain one's honor or one's power. If one or the other must be salvaged, let it be the former.

Besides, Mr. Clinton is wrong on the constitutional principle. States should not get into the game of even slyly or by backdoor or by devious routes imposing religious ''minutes of prayer.'' This is not only a matter of Madisonian doctrine for the health of the state. It is a matter of health for religion.

The separation of church and state has been a blessing to religion in this country, preventing the hypocrisy, formalism and corruption of state-endorsed churches. We are the most religious country in the modern industrialized world -- far more so than nations with the vestiges of state religion, like England or Italy.

Many of those who insist that their children pray publicly in school do not themselves pray in the home. They are ignorant not only of the Constitution but also of the New Testament, where Jesus says (Matthew 6:5-6):

''Whenever you pray, do not be theatrical about it, like those who stand in synagogues or at street corners to say their prayers, so that they can be watched doing it. I tell you urgently, they have received their pay [in people's attention]. You, whenever you pray, go into your own chamber and, behind closed doors, pray in utter privacy to the Father, and the Father who listens in private will grant your prayer.''

The Republican crusaders would rewrite scripture to make it say something like this:

''Whenever you pray, make sure you do it at school assemblies and football games, like the demonstrative preachers who pray before large television audiences. That is the real goal of the thing. But do not, I urge you, pray all alone in your home where no one can see. That does not get you ratings.''

As scripture elsewhere says (John 11:35): ''Jesus wept.''

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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