Just a little over a year ago the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach a president for only the second time in American history. Two months later, after a five-week trial in the Senate, President Clinton was acquitted of two articles of impeachment, one on perjury, the other on obstruction of justice.

At the time, of course, many claimed that the impeachment of President Clinton was a watershed. No history of the Clinton years would be written without prominently featuring the Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment. Beyond this, however, there was little agreement. One year later, is it possible to consider the lessons of the impeachment and acquittal of President Clinton with fairness and a measure of objectivity? With some distance, what are we to make of the tumultuous events of those days? To make a statement that every Christian reader will agree with is impossible, but that is not my goal. I offer instead one Christian's reflections.


POLITICS IS A VICIOUS CONTEST FOR POWER—HANDLE WITH CARE. In some societies that contest takes place through the barrel of a gun. Thankfully, here in this country we use the ballot box. Yet so much that occurs at the highest level of our politics is sordid, vicious, devious, and brutal.President Clinton provided considerable opportunity for his enemies to destroy him. But that he had enemies who wanted to destroy him and were working hard to do so is by now quite clear. Once people like Lucianne Goldberg (the literary agent who urged Linda Tripp to turn her tapes over to Kenneth Starr) had Clinton in their sights, they were determined to bring him down. Likewise the president was determined to evade the fatal blow and made use of every means available to elude his foes.We are often naïve about what actually goes on in the centers of political power, which makes us easily leveraged by those who play the game full time and for keeps. For most of the church's history a strand of Christian thought has tried to keep the Christian faith clear of power-based entanglements. That perspective had not been very visible in recent years. Since the Lewinsky scandal, however, it has surfaced again.The impeachment drama has reminded all of us that those Christians who are called to national politics face an excruciatingly demanding vocation. The moral compromises that tempt the Christian politician would stagger most of the rest of us. Political engagement should not be taken off the table as an element of Christian engagement with culture. But the church should take this opportunity to refocus its energies on evangelism and disciplemaking as the primary means for advancing the gospel.

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POLITICS IS NOT A GAME—RESTORE ITS GRAVITY. We learned last year, if we didn't already know it, that American politics apparently does not primarily involve people who seek with all their hearts to advance broad national or humanitarian interests. Perhaps because we face so little real threat to national survival, or maybe because of the broad deterioration of our national character, our nation's political life is characterized by self-interested gamesmanship more than inspiring statesmanship.How we long for people with a rich political and moral vision who work hard for just causes, whether in power or out and whether their causes are popular or not. A handful of politicians fits this description—Mark Hatfield (former senator from Oregon), Paul Henry (deceased former Congressman from Michigan), and Tony Hall (a current Congressman from Ohio) come to mind. There are certainly others.Mainly, though, we play at politics as we do at horseracing, poker, and the lottery. But while we play games, regimes rise and fall, nuclear weapons continue to spread, children die of hunger, abortion claims the lives of millions, and ethnic tribalism destroys its hapless victims. Christians must always call the nation and its leaders back to the dignity and significance of the work of government, which Paul called "God's servant for [our] good" (Rom. 13:4).


THE BEST POLITICAL LEADERS ARE POLITICALLY EFFECTIVE AND MORALLY ADMIRABLE BOTH IN PRIVATE AND PUBLIC LIFE—LOOK FOR THE TOTAL PACKAGE. The link between political effectiveness and personal character isn't straightforward. It is possible to be an effective but not morally admirable president. Many believe that Bill Clinton basically fits this description. Many would also place both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson (at least until Vietnam consumed his presidency) in this camp.It is possible to be morally admirable but not terribly effective. Whether fairly or not, Jimmy Carter is widely viewed as the best recent example of this combination. Some would place Woodrow Wilson in this category. The combination of ineffectiveness and moral mediocrity is also possible (e.g., Warren G. Harding).Every so often we are blessed with both effectiveness and integrity. Abraham Lincoln quickly comes to mind, but there are not many other candidates for this high honor—which may show us how difficult it is to hold high political office with both effectiveness and character intact.Further, there is both a link and a distinction between private and public morality. The link is that the same human being operates both in the private and the public realms—it is from the "heart" (Mark 7:21) that all human actions proceed. Character is revealed in every action. The distinction is that an officeholder is primarily responsible to the public for conducting the public business of that office responsibly. That public business consists of the evaluation, promotion, and implementation of public policies that affect the common good. It is certainly possible to combine a stellar private morality with an unbiblical public morality—and vice versa.As Christians, we should seek the total package: private moral rectitude, biblical public morality, and political effectiveness.

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CHRISTIANITY IS A MAJOR FACTOR IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE—WATCH FOR ITS POLITICAL MANIPULATION. We are a remarkably "religious" nation, and so all who would seek political office—at least at the national level—feel compelled to make a show of religious identification. Anyone who opposes Christian (or Judeo-Christian) convictions and values risks his political future, as Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura learned in the wake of his infamous interview with Playboy. Hypocrisy, religious sham, and the abuse of religious language and symbols are probably inevitable, given American religiosity. I shared the view of many at the time that President Clinton's use of the language of repentance and forgiveness during the impeachment crisis was at best dubious. While no one can get inside another person's soul, one can examine public acts for the fruit of repentance. These appeared to be lacking.Not all will agree with my perception. But there was much evidence at the time that the president hoped to preempt the impeachment process, or influence its outcome, through strategically employing the language of repentance. But some who sought Clinton's political destruction—even before he became president or before the Monica Lewinsky event—also abused religious language as they used it to cudgel him and to influence public debate.Perhaps a nation that wants public religiosity is better than one that has abandoned it. Having traveled in Europe, I prefer our own religiously vibrant public square to the sterile secularity in what used to be the heart of Christendom. But what you get with the expectation of religiosity—and the political benefits of religiosity—is the abuse of religiosity. Christians of all political persuasions need to become much more shrewd in noting and discounting hypocritical shows of public Christianity.

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THE MORAL FABRIC OF THE NATION IS IN WORSE SHAPE THAN WE KNEW—LEARN THE CULTURE. The casual response of many Americans to the president's sexual misconduct and deceit fits with what we know about the changing lifestyle and values of the American people. Americans, including all too many Christians, routinely violate biblical moral standards related to the covenantal relationships of life—sex, marriage, and family above all. A quick look at the adultery, divorce, and abuse statistics bears this out.So, sadly enough, the president's misconduct corresponded with the lives of millions of Americans, rather than arousing their moral outrage. I vividly recall being a guest on several call-in radio programs here in conservative west Tennessee and hearing the "everybody does it, so what's the big deal?" perspective again and again.Every so often the church gets a wake-up call about the surrounding culture. This has been one such wake-up call. The reality is difficult and discouraging, but we can undertake our mission most effectively if we know where we are. We need to get out from our evangelical ghetto and learn the culture.In just over a year Bill Clinton will be out of office. Future historians will judge his presidency. The nation has not collapsed through either the impeachment process or his serving out his term, as the most hysterical voices on either side suggested at the time. In retrospect, many important truths have been learned. A sobered yet still resolute evangelical world, having learned the appropriate lessons, needs to regroup and continue its engagement with American politics and culture.David P. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University, Jackson, Tennessee.

Related Elsewhere

David Gushee's previous articles for Christianity Today include: How Immortality Almost Killed Me | My quest for immortality and lasting significance reflects the fact that God has put eternity in the human heart. (March 3, 1997)The Speck in Mickey's Eye | We live in a wildly pluralistic society (Aug. 11, 1997)See also CT columnist Charles Colson's articles about the impeachment, Why We Should Be Hopeful (Apr. 26, 1999) and Moral Education After Monica (March 1, 1999).FamilyEducation.com ran an interesting article about impeachment lessons for children.Fallout from the scandal continues. In connection with the release of Jeffrey Toobin's book A Vast Conspiracy, Random House is publishing online previously unavailable documents related to the Clinton sex scandals, from Paula Jones's affidavits to Clinton's deposition in Jones v. Clinton.For more news and essays about the continuing aftermath of the impeachment, see Yahoo!'s full coverage area.

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