“This Dark Valley”
September 13, 1998; Rev. Carl W. Lindquist
Highlands United Methodist Church
Highlands, North Carolina
I want to postpone the sermon I had planned to deliver today in order to deal with the serious matter of the troubles surrounding the Presidency of the United States.
Let me say how truly thankful I am that I am not President Clinton’s pastor this morning. That person is the Rev. Philip Wogaman of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, and some years ago, I once met him at a conference and had a long chat with him. Perhaps this very moment, he is also preaching his sermon in the presence of the President and First Lady. As we speak, I pray for him and the heavy responsibility that he has this morning.
I speak to you this morning with a heavy heart. As you well know, I strenuously avoid preaching about contemporary political issues that might make me appear to be politically partisan in this pulpit, whether of the right or of the left. But there comes a time, I think, when moral leaders in the communities of our nation have an obligation to speak to important national and international issues, and I believe that time has come for me. And let me assure you that what I say this morning will, unlike the recent Starr Report, be fit for the ears and eyes of our children. [I’m not sure that that report should have been released as it was on the Internet, given its sexually explicit content.]
What I say now I say most circumspectly and carefully. We are seeing most politicians trying to ascertain the will of the American people, and that is their job I suppose. But I am not putting my finger in the wind this morning to see which way it is blowing nor am I simply mirroring what I think this congregation might think. My remarks are simply my own heart-felt perspective and conclusions, based on what I consider to be largely moral considerations and in our nation’s best interests.
I want to begin by saying what is obvious: that the United States is the world’s largest and most powerful democratic nation. And within the US, the Presidency is the single-most important and powerful political office. Therefore the office of the President of the United States is the most important position of political and governmental authority in the entire world.
Nonetheless and somewhat paradoxically, the greatest power of the Presidency lies not in the nuclear button or some such physical force, but rather in its moral authority and the fact that it embodies the ideals and values of the American People. It is for that reason that the Oval Office, where the President carries out his duties and from where he addresses the nation on matters of great national concern, is considered by the American people to be a revered, almost sacred, place.
It is a commonplace to observe that the American Presidency has to be filled by human beings, not angels. That means that unlike the angels, the President of the United States will be imperfect, just like the rest of us, occasionally making mistakes, committing sins, violating society’s code of morality. Nevertheless, there is still the expectation that the President will somehow both embody and practice the great virtues that are strongly believed in by the American people: virtues such as honesty, fidelity, compassion, loyalty, courage, and selflessness.
It is in the tension between these two insights, that a President should embody and practice extraordinary virtue while of necessity also remaining a sinner, that every President must live and act in history.
Oddly enough, the President is not alone in this—there are other positions of responsibility that have this tension about them. For example, a clergyman is also a human being who remains a sinner while at the same time also being expected to live a life of extraordinary virtue. (Indeed, I have long thought that a pastor’s job is more like that of a politician than a doctor or a lawyer!) We who are clergy also live in the tension between those two expectations.
The difference between the President and we clergy of course is in the degree of authority and power that we wield. The President of the United States literally has the power of life and death for not only this country, but for the entire world, in his hands. So that while the serious moral failing of any individual pastor can end up damaging or even destroying a congregation as well as the faith of many Christians, the consequences of the President failing in a serious moral issue are potentially many, many times greater, affecting possibly the fate of the entire world.
It is therefore a matter of terrible significance not only to we Americans but to the entire world that our President has been found to have betrayed both his marital and his official Presidential obligations and duties. It is now beyond dispute that the President, while in office and over a period of some two years, committed sexual immoralities with an immature young woman in his employ and for whom he is responsible, and then was intentionally dishonest when asked under solemn oath about his conduct by constituted judicial authorities.
These are extremely serious charges that, if true, strike at the very heart of the trust that we the American people place in our President.
It is no accident that numerous clergyman have been interviewed in the media since all of this came out. In yesterday’s New York Times, Dr. Robert Schuller had a guest column in which he really pushed President Clinton with some hard questions. He wrote,
“How will the President react and respond to the unfolding scandal…? More damage control? More retrenching? More digging in, holding on, firing back, summoning the tears, in an effort to win back the support of each people to keep himself in office…? The questions I think the President needs to ask himself are these: Which course of action will be in the best interest of my family and my country? Which course of action will restore honor and dignity to me and to all others who have been hurt?”
I find the notion that the President’s behavior is somehow strictly “personal” behavior that has no bearing on the public realm or that does not affect his Presidential obligations to be a fairly ridiculous notion. As an analogy that I think is fairly apt, the President’s behavior is no more “personal” or “private” than if I as pastor had made the decision to have an intimate relationship with our female Duke Intern this summer and then lied about it when caught. It is exactly the same situation. If I had done that, I would have not only sinned against God and forfeited the trust of my wife, but I also would have rightly lost the trust of this congregation in my office as pastor. And for me to expect to continue in my position as pastor of this church as if nothing had really happened, would be, it seems to me, a sign of both arrogance and lack of integrity.
In fact, several years ago, in serving on our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I was in a position, along with thirty-some other clergy, of having to decide the fate of several ministers who had done things in the same ballpark as President Clinton has now admitted to doing. One of them, as you know, was my predecessor in this pulpit. In each case, we felt that the only proper course for all concerned—pastor and family, congregation, denomination—was to remove these ministers from their churches and place them on leave of absence, despite the fact that none of them had any other truly viable means of making a living. They were all encouraged to go through a substantial process of psychotherapy and spiritual renewal, with the understanding that return to ministry was an real option if they got their lives back together.
Of all these ministers, only our friend Tom Steagald faithfully went through the process of recovery and renewal, saved his marriage and has now successfully returned to the ministry, a better person and a better pastor (all of which he shared with us last fall when he was back in this pulpit). Unfortunately, the rest simply could not deal with their problem or the mandated recovery process, and they never returned.
President Clinton has twice taken his oath of office, in which he vows to “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States.” In doing what he has now appears to have done, the President has in my opinion violated his oath of office and has lost the vital trust of many, many Americans in his basic character and integrity. As with the pastoral office, so it is even more true with the Presidential office: what is more important than personal character and integrity? What is more important than a President’s word? Can a President continue to effectively lead and to govern when this happens?
President Clinton is perhaps the most gifted politician of his generation. He has incredible charisma and relationship ability, as well as a tremendous intelligence when it comes to policy matters. I’ll never forget the evening we were having dinner with Chuck Colson a couple years ago, courtesy of Jack and Ruth Eckerd, and Chuck was sharing his experience of having met President Clinton at the funeral of former President Nixon. He told of talking to President Clinton for perhaps 15 minutes and of having been captivated by this man’s relational charisma even when they were on opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum. President Clinton was, according to Colson, simply an extraordinary politician, one whom one was almost forced to admire and like by the sheer force of his personality.
And so, both because of his immense charisma, as well as the prosperity and peace in which we find ourselves for the moment, many Americans, according to the polls, continue to like and admire President Clinton, despite his immoral and tawdry unpresidential behavior.
All partisan politics aside, what is happening is a real tragedy, both for the President and for this nation. Aside from a few political zealots, nobody is happy to see happen what is happening.
One thing we must always remember is that the office of the Presidency is bigger and greater than any person or occupant. It is a great privilege, as well as a great responsibility, to be the American President; it is not a right. And if someone in that greatest of all political offices commits misdeeds or crimes sufficient to destroy his or her credibility and their ability to govern and to lead the nation in its many important undertakings, then for the good of the nation, perhaps that person should step aside and allow their designated successor to take over the responsibilities of the office.
I believe that we have reached that point. The honorable thing for our President to do, having chosen to act in such a reckless and mendacious manner and with such disrespect for his office, is to resign that office and return to private life to begin the process of recovering and renewing his personal life, his family life, and perhaps even his political vocation. Vice-president Gore, who is prepared by background and experience to assume the Presidency, would then succeed him.
Unfortunately, what is quite unseemly now is that the President appears ready to cling to his office, no matter the cost to the nation. While finally confessing his sin and misdeeds in such public settings as last Friday’s National Prayer Breakfast, seeking forgiveness from individuals who have been involved as well as from the nation, the President also instructs his attorneys “to mount a vigorous [legal] defense.”
Honestly, I am quite troubled by this. I find this dichotomy to be very peculiar, quite troubling, and ultimately unconvincing. How can one lay down the sword in contrition, as it were, and at the same time, wield the sword in one’s defense? It does not compute.
The issue is not whether we like this President. Many of us do, while some of us don’t. Furthermore, many people agree with his basic policies while others don’t. Neither of these things really matter now. The sole issue is whether the behavior of our President has caused his credibility as President to disintegrate and has severely damaged our trust in his capacity to faithfully serve in the high office of the Presidency.
Are the President’s misdeeds grounds for impeachment? I don’t know; but even more than that I hate to see for this whole affair to go to that length, only drawing out the trauma and damage to the nation while keeping us from dealing with the terribly important issues that face us as we are about to enter the 21st century. Though it may eventually have to come to a long drawn inquiry, I wish that our President were wise enough and truly humble enough to realize that his behavior, whatever their cause or origin, has severely damaged his ability to serve, that he is not irreplaceable, and that he could best serve this nation he says he loves by humbly offering to step aside so that the nation’s business might go on.
Our actions, no matter who we are, always have consequences. If we are contrite, we should receive forgiveness, both from God and others, for our sinful actions. But that does not change the fact that we face consequences as a result of our decisions and actions which are often permanent in nature. The seeds we sow, good and bad, do in time bear fruit, both good and bad. That is the truth of our moral universe, and nothing will change it.
I wish it were different, but I am not optimistic in this situation. The most statesmen-like act that President Clinton could do would be to honorably resign, but it doesn’t look like he will. So we will probably move into a time of obsessive and partisan wrangling and divisiveness, while other important issues of foreign and national concern are placed are the backburner and basically ignored. It is a dark valley that we are entering, and while we are there, we need to keep faith and hope.
Dr. Schuller concluded his column with these words: “The world is facing dangerous times, financially, politically, physically, spiritually and morally. The United States needs to be at its strongest now, more than ever. This country and the world demand honest, moral and humble leadership immediately. We can go no longer without it. The nation awaits the President’s answer.”
And while we wait, we should keep President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea in our prayers. We keep the members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate in our prayers as they consider what they shall do. We pray for our nation as we dwell in this very dangerous time of weakened leadership. And we pray that God will lead and guide us all through this peril, through this dark valley in which we are now walking.