THE GUEST on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's CNN television show Aug. 22 was Rev. Jerry Falwell. Mr. Jackson, who regularly bashed Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush for their foreign and domestic policies, and Mr. Falwell, who defended those Republican presidents, again found themselves on opposite sides.
There was Mr. Jackson, quoting Scripture and asking why Mr. Falwell won't forgive Mr. Clinton's admitted affair with Monica Lewinsky.
And there was Mr. Falwell saying that forgiveness was one thing, but the ability to lead was quite another, and he believes Mr. Clinton has lost that ability.
Of far greater significance than what these two men predictably said about Mr. Clinton was the message preached at the Washington National Cathedral earlier this month by its chief priest, the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter. You normally expect to hear sermons at this cathedral more in tune with liberal theology and liberal public policy. Father Baxter confounded that notion. In a sermon titled "Fig Leaves, Politics and Christian Faith," Father Baxter not only criticized President Clinton and his defenders for treating his relationship with Lewinsky as private, he also blasted the morally squishy public, as depicted in opinion polls, for placing morality far behind economic prosperity.
"The real power of politics is moral," he said. "Therefore, in leadership, immodesty or immorality is never private, for it affects the ability of a people to grant permission to lead." Society's obsession with material wealth, he said, has allowed us to tolerate moral irresponsibility. "What has happened to a nation more concerned about its wallet than its soul?" he asked. "What has happened, regardless of the politics around it, is morally unacceptable."
Father Baxter also took on the notion, frequently quoted by some defenders of the president, not to judge others lest we be judged. He said holding the president accountable for his admitted acts is not judging but acknowledging a painful truth: ". . . our desire to keep sin private or ignore immorality is a judgment upon all of us. . . . Unless we acknowledge moral failing -- without excuse -- the soul of our nation will not heal."
That a priest associated with the church's liberal wing would say such things may be a sign that the unity among liberal clergy is about to come undone. Liberal clergy were unanimous in their demands for Richard Nixon's impeachment. They were one in their criticism of the tax and welfare policies of Reagan and Bush and the Contract With America. But when a Nathan Baxter says things like: "I believe, more importantly, our children will be even more confused as to whether the truest treasure of our common life as a nation is found in the state of the economy or the character of our moral integrity," one senses that, Jesse Jackson excepted, an important shift is taking place in one wing of religious opinion.
Baxter could pass for a moral clone of William Bennett. In his latest book, "The Death of Outrage," Bennett writes: "Far from being value-neutral, sex may be the most value-laden of any human activity. . . . The act of sex has complicated and profound repercussions. To deny this, to consider it to be something less special and powerful than it is, is a dodge and a lie. Sexual indiscipline can be a threat to the stability of crucial human affairs. That is one reason why we seek to put it under ritual and marriage vow."
One expects such thoughts from William Bennett. One does not expect a similar message from the pulpit of the National Cathedral.
An annual meeting between President Clinton and religious leaders is scheduled for early September. A few of the more conservative ones are undecided about attending. They fear being used by the president to win public redemption. Will this be the venue Mr. Clinton appropriates to improve on his televised talk in which he sounded more combative than contrite? Father Baxter should attend and say to the president's face what he said in his sermon.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/31/98