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By Conrad Goeringer
August 18, 2020

What's the fuss?

If news reports and public reaction is any guide, people in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world are puzzled by the American media circus over Bill Clinton's sexcapades in and out of the Oval Office, and the fact that the world's most influential political figure felt it necessary to bare his soul on nationwide television about something that is, well, private. Nobody's business. Butt out.

Starting yesterday morning as the Clinton White House was making final preparations for the President's video testimony to a Washington grand jury, media went into warp drive. CNN began "live coverage of this developing story," a phrase which in a few hours was quickly purloined by Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. And Clinton's public mea culpa to the nation had all of the buildup and breathless anticipation of the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial. No sooner had Mr. Clinton's finished his short statement than talking heads swung into action, nearly repeating what the President had said, and interpreting for a presumably gossip-thirsty American audience what it all meant.

Our focus here is not on whether Bill Clinton is a Presidential Priapus, or speculation about the "stain" on Monica's dress. (Hasn't she ever heard of dry cleaning? And doesn't Ken Starr feel a bit like the poor sap who sweeps up the Kleenex from the floor of a sordid, adult peep show, and saves the detritus?)

What concerns us here is the role played by religious right groups and pundits in the media hype and digital fall out from last night's self-excoriation by Clinton.

Leading off the pack of public morals hounds was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), looking and acting every bit the Patriarch... stumbling first, looking for his stride, and finding in the argument that, well, Clinton groveled, but now long enough nor low enough to assuage the wrath and righteous indignation of his critics. The President should not have even mentioned the Independent Counsel, argued Hatch. Those points were echoed by stern and bitter Bay Buchanan, sister and campaign handler for Pat. One sought in vain for evidence here of Christian forgiveness.

Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate was on the studio scene as well, telling a network audience that the whole Clinton affair "is sending the wrong message to young people." Today, the Coalition fax machines were humming; a follow-up press advisory from Tate declared in beltway-psychoanalytic style, "After carefully reviewing the president's statement, it became clear that deep remorse and repentance were not the motivating factors in his public statement." Tate, Buchanan and Hatch all argued that Clinton should have said nothing about Starr and his investigation. Presumably, the assertion that he, Clinton, had to respond to answers and investigation that "no American should" fell on deaf ears.

It's The Economy... But Not To These Guys
Bill Clinton is no great friend of civil liberties, or the First Amendment, or state-church separation. While he held the line on the more flagrant abuses of the Establishment Clause -- for instance, by having the Department of Education issue guidelines about religious conduct in public schools, or making clear that he was not going to support the Religious Freedom Amendment -- the Clinton administration has done it share of damage to the Jeffersonian wall. Clinton's Solicitor General waded in on the side of the Roman Catholic Church in the BOERNE v. FLORES decision which struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The White House has also sent signals that it will support the Religious Liberty Protection Act with a few cosmetic changes -- something that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Hill generally agree on. Here, Clinton the Philanderer and Hatch the Patriarch are of one mind. And Clinton is taking us into dangerous territory in handing out money and other forms of aid to churches and other religious groups as part of a feel-good strategy to fight crime, "redevelop" neighborhoods, and involve the faith community in social services. He may oppose giving parents money for vouchers, but thinks it's OK to have ministers setting up everything from Neighborhood Watch programs to soup kitchens. For this, give Bill Clinton a grade of "C" when it comes to questions of state-church separation... maybe a "C+" for his guts in standing firm on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban. We could do worse.

As shrill and belligerent as it has been, Clinton's political opposition has had little success in running against a strong economy, record level bull market on Wall Street, and low unemployment. One senses the frustration of Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan when surveyed Americans seem to care more about respectable paychecks than they do about gays in the military, or a stain on a dress. Let's face it... the "culture war" crusade, while having a profound impact on the American political landscape, just has not been an effective weapon against Bill Clinton. Beholden to the Christian Coalition and its religious right brethren, the major player in the Republican Party are left with campaign issues that appeal to energized religious fundamentalists and those who cheer on a constricted sense of "family-values" but leave many Americans behind. As political strategist James Carville notes, this is not how you win the "50%-plus-one-vote" game.

Staining Clinton
That Bill Clinton has been caught with his pants down, in the Oval Office and in the company of a woman not his wife is something which not all critics can resist. Conspicuously absent on last night's target shoot of the President was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in the midst of putting together his own exploratory committee for a run at the GOP Presidential nomination, seems willing to sit this one out. Orrin Hatch has no such plans or restrictions; and Randy Tate is merely carrying out Pat Robertson's dictum of smearing Clinton "by any means necessary."

In the coming days, look for religious right organizations to attempt to put their own spin on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, emphasizing this not as a peculiar American obsession which betrays our angst about matters of sex (a fact which the Europeans perceive in our neurotic and even melodramatic media coverage of this event), but as a matter of moral weight second only, perhaps, to The Second Coming. Coincidentally, this past weekend Ted Turner's entertainment network aired "The American President," a White House "opera buffe" with Michael Douglas and Annette Benning. Immersed in a literal bedroom farce, Douglas plays a recently-widowed President who becomes involved with Benning's character (a hardball environmentalist crusader). The media goes berserk, and in one press conference Douglas must remind the Hounds of the Fifth Estate that other news -- such as a military attack on Libya -- may be of somewhat more vital importance that who he spends the night with.

Is there a parallel here?

Along with the usual list of self-appointed "family values" groups inside Beltsville which intends capitalizing on Mr. Clinton's Monday evening confessional, we may expect to hear a lot more in forthcoming days from the National Clergy Council. Not to be confused with the National Council of Churches, this NCC has, until now, lacked the profile and visibility of other religious right organizations such as Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family or the Traditional Values Coalition. But the Council may well be the point-dog in a concerted effort to keep the Monica issue, stain and all, burning in the media spotlight.

With hyperbolic style, the National Clergy Council has announced that it is convening a panel today of theologians and ethicists to "advise" the President and the public on how to best resolve the "escalating moral crisis."

But what "escalating moral crisis?"

Aside from the fact that Mr. Clinton finally admitted what most of us have suspected all along -- and really did not care much about -- where is the "escalation"? Is this a "moral crisis" or a media event? Is it a "crisis" in comparison with all of the news which was blown off the air last night, as Rather and Jennings and Brokaw and the other talking heads guided us through a live-cam tour of D.C. sites? We have bombings in Northern Ireland, a melt down in Russia and Asia, crisis in the Middle East... and an admission of sexual impropriety in the White House is a "crisis"?

Is that the ghost of Jack Kennedy laughing?

The National Clergy Council has, until recently, lingered on the fringes of the religious right. While Randy Tate has carte blanche to most offices on Capitol Hill, the NCC has had to settle for less glamorous recognition. Its press releases are peppered with Biblical quotes and citations, a faux pas which even Tate and his predecessor, Ralph Reed, knew must be avoided if one is to be taken seriously. In October, 1996, the Council issued "A Theological and Moral Analysis of the Current Presidential Administration" which was touted as "A Comparison of the words and actions of the Clinton presidency with the biblical, historical, and contemporary standards of the Christian church with particular attention to the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of sexual relations." Like similar tracts and declarations, it was fixated with judgment concerning bodily fluids, processes and activities. Nobody paid much attention.

On July 24, 2020, though, the National Clergy Council received nationwide publicity, thanks to a chance tragedy -- the shootings of two U.S. Capitol Police by a demented gunman. According to the Washington Post, members of the NCC led by general secretary Rev. Robert Schenck had been holding "an executive board meeting n the nearby Dirksen Office Building" when the shots rang out. Arriving on the scene, "The ministers formed a circle on the lawn in front of the Capitol that day and began praying and singing the Lord's Prayer. They then broke off to help individuals, many of whom were huddled under trees, weeping."

But what was the National Clergy Council doing on Capitol Hill that day? More than an "executive board meeting" was taking place. In fact, the NCC was making one of their many excursions to deliver plastic tablets depicting the Ten Commandments, a project which has succeeded in placing over 200 copies of the Decalogue in the offices of various elected officials, "to remind them they are accountable to a higher authority."

"The council ultimately wants a large version of the tablets displayed in the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court building," noted the Post; but for now, the NCC will have to settle for having its faux-Commandments hang in the offices of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn), Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan), Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) who introduced a non-binding resolution in the House urging Decalogue display, and, of course, Sen. Oriin Hatch (R-Utah).

Rev. Schenck has also led several delegations to the White House to deliver a set of the Ten Commandments to President Clinton. This time, he made it as far as the mail room. The day of the shooting, though, House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) accepted his set of Ten Commandment plaques, and declared that he was willing to arrange a delivery of the Decalogue tablets to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was all a break for the NCC, though not necessarily for the two officers who were killed, Jacob J. Chesnut and John M. Gibson. Rev. Schenck told reporters, "The only way to explain it is that it was providential..." It's on to bigger media things, though, for the National Council of Clergy. The Post noted, that "Emboldened in part by the 'small but important contribution' they made that day, council members have turned their attention to Clinton's testimony Monday before a grand jury -- and to the moral issues being raised by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation, including what constitutes lying and adultery..."

We may get some idea of the NCC agenda by noting that it was founded by Schenck in 1988 at the suggestion of Randall Terry, antiabortion crusader and founder of Operation Rescue. The purpose of the group, which according to the Post "has worked behind the scenes at federal and state government offices" is "to bring biblical and historical Christian and moral instruction to bear on the minds of those who shape public policy."

The group has between 4,000 and 5,000 members, many of them hard-shell Pentecostals, fundamentalists and Christian Reconstructionists who seek to reconstitute secular American society along Old Testament, Biblically-correct lines. Although the Post said that the organization "does not lobby for the passage of specific legislation," the National Clergy Council is listed on a list of "Endorsing Groups" at the website for the Religious Freedom Amendment operated by the office of Rep. Ernest Istook, the main RFA sponsor in the House.

That President Clinton's personal life, background and business dealings have become a bette noir for the religious right is obvious. Unable to convince voters that it isn't "the economy, stupid," little remains left but to try and focus -- desperately -- on Clinton's peccadilloes with Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky. It also explains why a "religious liberties" organization, the Rutherford Institute which ordinarily embroils itself in school prayer cases or other efforts to violate the First Amendment, stepped up to the plate on behalf of Paula Jones. Curiously, that tactic too seems have backfired. Earlier this month, the Institute dispatched a frantic fund raising appeal to supporters, describing its situation as "grim." The association with Jones has coincided with a downsizing effort at Rutherford, and seven of the 60 employees have received pink slips, and the group's Washington office has been shut down. The "get Clinton at any cost" agenda has resulted in $400,000 in expenses for Rutherford Institute, twice the amount originally budgeted. In addition, Institute President John Whitehead admitted to the Washington Post that after taking on the Jones appeal, "he faced a stack of letters, three feet high, from angry supporters refusing to renew their pledges. Some did not want the institute to be involved in what they saw as a political matter; others were upset by the sexual nature of the case." Ms. Jones, fresh from a cosmetic makeover, has established her own legal fund and is trying to raise money through direct mail.

(The decline in the Institute's fortunes may also be linked to Whitehead's "elastic" ideology. He has said that evangelicals were "out to lunch" regarding homosexual rights, and he is representing a 14-year old youngster who was kicked out of a karate class when it was learned that he had AIDS.)

For Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch and the rest of the inside-the-beltway religious right, Clinton's involvement in "zippergate" remains an issue that which must be kept alive. The last thing they wish to see is what the President -- and most Americans -- hope will occur ... that flirtations and seductions in the Oval Office mercifully drop from the political radar screen, and off the front page.

They cannot allow that to happen without a fight.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.