Clinton's pastor applies ethics to controversy Leaders' morality should be judged by courage, compassion, he says

March 01, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- When the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, a noted Christian ethicist, inherited the pulpit of Foundry United Methodist Church here six years ago, his predecessor bequeathed him a bombshell powerful enough to shatter the church.

The Rev. Edward W. Bauman, Foundry's beloved former minister, had sent a letter to each church member confessing that during his nearly 28 years as their pastor, he had "relationships of a sexual nature" with several women in the congregation.

The next Sunday, Wogaman stepped to the pulpit to deliver what he regards as his "most important sermon" ever. He told the congregation that his predecessor had violated the boundary between clergyman and congregant and that the church could not condone his behavior.

"But at the same time," Wogaman said, "I acknowledged the immense fruitfulness of his ministry, which had been a shaping influence in the lives of many people for a long period of time."

As pastor to President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wogaman finds himself once again preaching, above all, a sense of proportion when judging the morality of public leaders. What might sound to some like an elaborate apologia for the president is to Wogaman a demonstration of how he applies Christian ethics to a complicated controversy.

Sexual misconduct does not automatically render a leader immoral, Wogaman said in a recent interview in Washington. He said he believed that the morality of politicians should also be judged by courage, concern for the poor, fostering world peace, running the economy responsibly and furthering racial equality.

Wogaman emphasized that he believed the president's adamant denial about the accusations of sexual impropriety and perjury. But if the accusations should be proved true, "there are credible stories of what you might call moral lapses by Martin Luther King Jr.," Wogaman said. "But to define his life on the basis of those moral failings would be to miss the point about Martin Luther King Jr."

In an era when the loudest preachers are those who say that morality is absolute, Wogaman is a preacher who likes to weigh the relativity of issues. He says the only absolute is God, and when human beings make absolutes out of a "cultural expression" like heterosexuality or sexual fidelity, then they have succumbed to "idolatry." He has been attacked by conservatives as being too liberal, but his colleagues insist he has been misjudged.

"There isn't an ideological bone in his body, in the sense that he's going to know ahead of time where he's going to come out," said Larry Rasmussen, a professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

Wogaman, 65, shocked his academic colleagues when he returned to pastoring after 26 years of teaching Christian ethics, 11 of those as dean at Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist school.

His outspokenness on social and political issues has often landed him in hot water with religious conservatives, many in his own denomination. He has spoken out against racism in the church, written in books about his opposition to pacifism, led a task force investigating the Swiss company Nestle's marketing of infant formula to the poor, testified in favor of sanctuary for Central American refugees and written a pamphlet advocating abortion rights. He recently became president of the Interfaith Alliance, a group formed as a counterpoint to the religious right.

He declined to discuss his pastoral relationship with the first family, and would not say whether he has any privileged information on which to base his skeptical view of the accusations against President Clinton. But he criticized the ethical standards of others involved in the crisis enveloping the White House: the media, the legal establishment and Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the relationship between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

"The whole purpose in having a special prosecutor is to ensure that, in the examination of wrongdoing by people very high in public office, there will be no hint of partisanship or self-interest infecting the professional decisions made," Wogaman said. "I think the public is perceiving that the special prosecutor's office has not risen to that standard and that things are being pursued almost in the spirit of a desire to find something to bring the president down."

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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