Clergy explore moral ground Sermons: Clinton's confession gives area's religious leaders food for thought.

August 22, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In a week in which the president of the United States publicly admits to adultry and says he misled the American people about it, religious leaders composing their sermons for this weekend certainly have plenty to talk about.

For rabbis and ministers whose job it is to lead and instruct their congregations in the moral realm, it is a teachable moment.

"You can't ignore it," said the Rev. John Sabatelli, pastor of Christ Church, a Lutheran congregation in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "What I plan to tell the congregation is: He was wrong. He was wrong because what he did was not so much that he violated the law, but it was an unloving thing to do, unloving, injurious and unhealthy in his relationship to his God, his wife, his daughter and Monica Lewinsky. He can be forgiven, but there will be consequences."

"I've been agonizing all week," said Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation, Owings Mills, who will address his members this morning. "Because on one hand, we tire of all the pundits rehashing an issue that's not going to go away, even after the speech on Monday night. ... But I feel it's necessary to address it in some way."

Goldstein said he will encourage the congregation to use ancient texts to reflect on modern moral problems, such as how the conduct of an individual affects the entire community.

"As a Jew, I use the guidance of my history, my tradition and my ancient texts," he said. "Whenever a critical issue happens in society, it's my responsibility as rabbi not to interpret it on a political level, but to the best of my ability put my own Jewish spin on the issue."

The U.S. missile strikes in Sudan and Afganistan had some clergy revising sermons at the last minute.

"I firmly believe in the necessity of the military strikes," said Rabbi Rachel Hertzman of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, "but how unfortunate the president's credibility has really become eroded in my eyes. What he did is diminished. The action isn't diminished, but his credibility is diminished."

In her message last night in Upper Park Heights, she spoke on the Torah portion that just happened to fall on this Sabbath: It was on the notion of false prophecy. She talked "about how sad it is that someone with such great potential to lead has used that potential to lead people astray," she said.

Teachable moment or not, some religious leaders have had enough of the Clinton/Lewinsky subject and are ignoring it.

"My sense is that if our members want the traditional discourse, all they have to do is turn on NBC and they'll get all the discourse they want," said the Rev. Brad Ronnell Braxton, pastor of Douglass Memorial Community Church, just west of Bolton Hill. "I think it's easy for pastors to get caught up in this and offer political commentary with a religious tint to it, when you should be preaching the Gospel and allow the Gospel to do its work in casting light on darkness we see in Washington and elsewhere."

The absurdity of the whole situation was crystallized for Rabbi Seymour Essrog when he was listening to his car radio as he was on the road Thursday afternoon.

"They interrupted national news about a bombing in Sudan to talk about Monica Lewinsky coming out of the grand jury," he said. "There was absolutely no news, just that she was coming out ... this whole political situation is getting out of hand and it's embarrassing."

Essrog, who is president of the organization representing the world's Conservative rabbis and leads Beth Shalom congregation in Carroll County, said the discussion of Bill Clinton's affair is not advancing moral discourse and, in fact, is having the opposite effect.

"I think in the name of justice and morality we've sunk to the lowest level, talking about all kinds of sexual activity, exposing young children to things they should learn about later on in life," he said.

On the national level, reactions to Clinton's speech have ranged from outright condemnation to forgiveness and pleas to let his private life be private.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, reacted with "sadness ... to human frailty" and offered prayers for the Clinton family. "Our long experience in pastoral care has taught us the wisdom of protecting personal life from public display," Campbell said. "I hope that, as a nation, we are now learning that truth. The private lives of our public leaders are best left private or we will have none allowed to lead us."

But Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Clinton's statement reflected the "obvious materialism and moral decadence of America.

"To the president, I urge, look to Jesus for forgiveness and you have our prayers," he said. "To Americans who say that the economy is all that matters, I simply remind you that God judges nations when they abandon his moral principles."

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