Cover image for From the eye of the storm : a pastor to the president speaks out
From the eye of the storm : a pastor to the president speaks out
Wogaman, J. Philip.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
Louisville, Ky. : Westminster John Knox Press, [1998]

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139 pages ; 21 cm
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E886.2 .W64 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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According to J. Philip Wogaman, the drama being played out in Washington represents a struggle for the nation's soul. On one side is an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness, time-honored themes of the nation's formative religious traditions. On the other side is an emphasis on condemnation and punishment for wrongdoing. The question is, which represents the more appropriate path for the future of the United States? This is the question Wogaman sets out to answer in this fascinating book.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

While conservative religion scholars have been debating the differences between confession and forgiveness, President Clinton's pastor Wogaman has listened to the president's private confessions and counseled him in matters of faith. Wogaman, like the signers of the "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency," believes that this moment represents a significant moment in the course of America's moral and religious history. However, Wogaman contends that many politicians and religious leaders have been too quick to judge and condemn Clinton both for his sexual misconduct and for his alleged perjury before a grand jury. He asserts, to the contrary, that the Christian virtues of repentance and forgiveness should be emphasized in the Clinton case. Wogaman focuses on Clinton's speeches on August 17, 1998, and on September 11, 1998, as well as on his own private conversations with Clinton to argue that Clinton has confessed his sin in a contrite way, is seeking actively to repent of his sin and is seeking forgiveness from both his family and his nation. In a stirring chapter, Wogaman applies 1 Corinthians 13, which speaks about the character of love, to this situation and says that this virtue "operates in the service of a harmonious community." Wogaman raises important questions: "Can we adequately assess anybody's moral character if we focus entirely on a small number of personal virtues or flaws of character? How much should be public, and how much should be private? Where do we draw the line?" In the end, Wogaman believes that Clinton has acknowledged his need for healing and that the politicians who would persecute Clinton need to move beyond what he sees as their narrow-mindedness and pettiness to forgiveness and a larger picture of America's future. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wogaman, the senior minister of Foundry United Methodist Church and the Clintons' Washington pastor, is an authority on Christian and political ethics. Here he presents a thoughtful commentary on President Clinton's moral dilemma and its implications for American society. Clinton emerged from a special prayer breakfast in September 1998 repentant and deserving forgiveness, asserts Wogaman, who regards the Starr Report as a judgmental, sensational document devoid of compassion. Clinton's popularity remains high, Wogaman maintains, because the public views the president as a man who cares about them, and although Clinton has engaged in immoral activities, he deserves forgiveness and the opportunity to redeem himself through the completion of his term with a Congressional rebuke. Wogaman will probably not change the opinions of Clinton's foes, but he offers a reassuring critique for the president's supporters and for those still uncertain about their feelings. Recommended for public libraries.ÄKarl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Gathering Storm For seven months, the nation had been preoccupied with the continuing White House crisis. By late summer 1998, events appeared to be moving toward a culmination. Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was alleged to have had a sexual relationship with the president, had arrived at an agreement with special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and testified at length before a Washington, D.C., grand jury. The president himself had agreed to offer testimony before the grand jury on August 17. As the date approached, the nation's attention was focused on Washington.     As pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, the president's and first lady's Washington congregation, I Was deeply interested in these events. Nevertheless, while the nation was looking toward Washington, my family and I were in a very different place. We had retreated to our favorite vacation spot by the shores of a small lake in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. Lake Eaton is a beautiful place. Its crystal waters are surrounded by forest and mountains. The night sky, after sunset, displays brilliant stars. It is a grand place to lay aside the burdens of the year and be restored by God's creation. We needed that time apart from pastoral pressures and responsibilities.     Always in the back of our minds, even in the peacefulness of the northern woods, was the crisis that had gripped the nation and distracted the government for months. But we weren't thinking as much about it in those days by the lake.     Our peaceful time came to an abrupt end. The Friday before the president's scheduled appearance before the grand jury, a park ranger bicycled up to our campsite with a message. I was to call my secretary as quickly as possible. As quickly as possible meant going out to a pay phone by the highway and managing a conversation over the roar of logging trucks. I had been asked, she reported, to participate in the Reverend Jesse Jackson's television program the following Sunday, August 16. Reverend Jackson wanted me there to comment on the issues developing around President Clinton's forthcoming appearance before the grand jury. I doubt whether he thought I would have anything to contribute on the legal or political issues, but there were moral and religious issues, and the president attends our church. I gave it careful thought. There were, I thought, limits to what I could or should say Still, there were things I felt I needed to say. The CNN producer of the program would arrange for me to appear through a New York or Massachusetts television station so it would not be necessary to end our vacation, and that sounded fine at first.     But then we thought some more. Carolyn voiced her concern first. "Phil," she said, "we belong back in Washington. This crisis is just too important. It involves too many people we care about." She was right, so we packed up and came home. Reverend Jackson's program, "Both Sides with Jesse Jackson" proceeded conversationally. I was joined in that thirty-minute discussion by my Foundry colleague Dr. Walter Shropshire and by Jesse Jackson himself. It was a pretty compatible discussion. We didn't know what would happen in the president's testimony or what he might say afterwards, but we agreed that this gifted political leader still had much to contribute to the nation. We cited relevant biblical passages and discussed the way God had continued to use morally imperfect people. In fact, it is not too great an exaggeration to say that most of the characters in the Bible, including those who did the most good, were very human and had their share of moral weaknesses.     I respected Reverend Jackson and his TV audience, although I was not sure how wide the program's impact would be. The program was, however, picked up by the Associated Press and widely referred to the next day in newspapers across the country. That, in turn, led to an increasing number of other requests for interviews and comments in the days ahead. Being Drawn In     Let's be honest about it. Most pastors, myself included, do not exactly shy away from public attention. It's one of our occupational sins. At the same time we can be a little ambivalent about it. The pastoral instinct is to avoid controversial situations. There are good reasons for that. In the first place, we know we can't be experts on everything. Often, we just haven't had the time or competence to delve into all the factual details. Then, too, we don't want to take sides in partisan controversies where there is bound to be some truth--and some error--on both sides. Perhaps most important of all, we don't want to compromise our pastoral effectiveness by speaking of personal matters in a public way. I have been especially concerned about this in the midst of the present political environment. When people share things in confidence with a pastor, the confidentiality must be respected. The way we speak or write of our pastoral responsibilities should strengthen, not weaken, the trust of those who hear or read what we have to say. Everybody should feel that they can pour out their hearts to their pastors or priests or rabbis, knowing that it will stay right there. That is as true of prominent parishioners as it is of anyone else. The only exceptions should be when maintaining silence presents a danger to somebody (such as a situation of child or spousal abuse) or when the person wishes to have something known by others. Even such exceptions have to be handled very carefully. Pastoral privacy is so important that it is respected by law in almost all states and the District of Columbia. A pastor cannot be required to testify in court concerning confidences shared in such a setting. In the District of Columbia, where Foundry Church is located, the law is pretty clear: A priest, clergyman, rabbi, or other duly licensed, ordained, or consecrated minister of ... religion may not be examined in any civil or criminal proceedings in the federal courts in the District of Columbia and District of Columbia courts with respect to any--(1) confession, or communication, made to him, in his professional capacity in the course of discipline enjoined by the church or other religious body to which he belongs, without the consent of the person making the confession or communication; or (2) communication made to him, in his professional capacity in the course of giving religious or spiritual advice, without the consent of the person seeking the advice....     That is wise law. I am resolved to uphold the intent of that by keeping faith with such confidences. Nothing in this book will violate pastoral confidences!     One might ask, should a pastor ever respond to media requests and participate in the public debate--or write a book like this? What is a pastor's role or responsibility then?     The answer is that that, too, can be a part of pastoral responsibility. We are responsible for maintaining the privacy of our counseling relationships. But we are also concerned about what happens to the people we know and love. To put it in biblical language, part of our task is to care for the sheep--and part of it is to keep the wolves at bay! Thus, a pastor can want to help poor people directly, but it is also important for him or her to be an advocate for social policies that help to wipe out poverty. We want to provide a helping hand to those who have been stigmatized in society, so they will find a compassionate home in church or synagogue or mosque. But we also want to help do away with racism and other "isms" that hurt people on a wider scale. A good pastor cannot duck that responsibility, painful though it may be.     In my own case, there was yet another dimension. My academic training included a major specialization in social ethics. For more than forty years I have studied, taught, and written about the relationships between faith and the great issues of the day. That has always been an important part of my ministry. I have explored as carefully as I could the moral implications of racial discrimination, issues of war and peace, questions of economic policy, the problems and dilemmas of politics and public policy, issues of sexuality and healthy family life. I cannot claim to be an expert on all these matters, of course. But an important part of my life and vocation has been to see the connecting points between basic moral values on the one hand and the pressing issues on the other. The fact that I am not an expert on all of these things helps me to see that nobody else is either!     And so, I have felt a responsibility to participate in the significant public debates of our time, if I felt I had something to add. That has never been more true than in the present crisis affecting the president and the nation. My participation in this is not as personal counselor to people involved in it, but as one with a contribution to make. I have been confident that mine is not the only voice to be heard, indeed that it is only a minor voice. But when asked to step to the table and participate, I could not step aside. Pastors, as well as other commentators, must help discern the deeper meaning of momentous issues and the wisest courses of action in dealing with them.     While most of what I have to say or write is about moral values and the perspectives of a religious faith, there is some practical and political commentary in this book as well. I make no apology for that. I have also been a lifelong student of political thought, and I have interacted with political leaders and policymakers in the nation's capital for many years--even well before serving as pastor of a church with many such people in its congregation. In my book Christian Perspectives on Politics , written a decade ago, I remarked that the intersection between faith and politics is endlessly fascinating. Both are central to the human drama. I am especially interested in the ways in which one affects the other. While the present book is centered on a particular (and very important) crisis in the life of the nation, I hope my observations here will contribute to the ongoing discussions of faith and politics in our society. Nevertheless, while I wish to speak out in this way, I know that many other people have things to say that I need to hear. Those who speak out must also be prepared to listen. The Blur of the Days Ahead     Looking back on the two or three weeks following our return from the mountains, everything seems a bit blurred. The call from the media for commentators and opinion was never-ending. I accepted most of the invitations at face value and tried not to take myself too seriously in the process. That part was easier since there were so many people doing the same thing. It even helped to have letters from critics pointing out how wrong and foolish my words were. I found myself thinking, ruefully, of Jesus' words, "Woe to you when all speak well of you"(Luke 6:26). At least I had escaped that "woe"! Still, I rarely felt burned in the process. One exception involved a New England radio station. The producer had called the night before, asking if I could participate the next morning. It sounded all right, so I said yes. They called me at the appropriate time and put me on hold while the talk show host finished his introduction. Listening to that, I could scarcely believe the hate and filth that poured forth. I hung up. When the producer called me back to say that we had been disconnected, I could only sag "I'm sorry, but I will not participate in that gutter conversation." That was the exception, as I said, but it served to remind me of the dark side of the national debate, where sacred values are besmirched even by those who purport to defend them. On the whole, I was glad we had come down from the woods. There were things to be said.     The president was in my prayers during the time of his testimony to the grand jury on August 17. I had no idea what he would be saying, although I knew it would be a grueling experience for him as it would be for anyone. Through the day there were media rumors that he would make a statement to the nation sometime in the evening. The announcement came after 6:00 that he had completed his testimony. There were the usual "leaks" about what had been said, some of which proved to be true, some utterly unfounded, and there was an announcement that he would indeed speak to the nation later in the evening.     Along with sixty or seventy million fellow Americans, I heard him speak. "I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible." He acknowledged that he had misled people and said, "I deeply regret that." He voiced his determination to do "whatever it takes" to put it right. Additionally, he criticized the independent counsel investigation.     I was a bit surprised by the brevity of the president's statement. Even more, I was disappointed by his confirmation that he had indeed engaged in serious misconduct. I had hoped otherwise. In the months since the story first broke in January, I had said that I viewed the charges and allegations with skepticism. That was not quite the same as saying that I was sure they were false, for I could not be certain of that. But the way in which they had come forth, combined with the number of stories that could not be confirmed reliably, really did lead me to be doubtful about the charges. There might have been something there, but nothing approaching the allegations. So the president's statement to the nation came as unpleasant confirmation that he really had done things that were very wrong.     My initial reaction to the brief speech was that he had probably said what he needed to say. To this day I cannot understand the critics who took the president to task for not saying he was sorry or for not apologizing. Perhaps he should have said more. Perhaps he should have spoken more directly to the hurt of people directedly affected and the grief this had caused the nation. Perhaps he should have spoken then of what he intended to do to set things right. Much of this he did say in the weeks to come. But when the president declared that his conduct had been "wrong," I thought that was the clear and unambiguous word to use. If you say you're "sorry," that can just mean you're sorry you got caught. He wasn't saying he was sorry he got caught; he was saying that what he got caught doing had been wrong. In retrospect it may have been a mistake for him to aim an oblique criticism at the independent counsel's operation. I will say more about that later in this book, but such criticism might, with greater grace, have been left to others. At the time I could imagine he was stirred up by the afternoon encounter. Maybe this would have been a good time to count to ten or even to save his speech for the next day. Still, I thought his brief address was pretty forthright.     That, of course, was not the assessment of numbers of commentators that night and in the days to come. A number of people, beginning with former vice president Dan Quayle, even called for his resignation. Many of those who didn't go that far still demanded more of a statement, more of an apology, a clearer indication that he was genuinely sorry. The following day, August 18, the president and his family headed to Martha's Vineyard for their own time of vacation and healing. During that period he made a couple of public appearances during which he amplified the statement of repentance. He voiced that repeatedly in private as well and welcomed statements by friends confirming and underscoring his repentance. I was among those who were in a position to make such statements, because he had spoken directly to me about his remorse over his conduct, in such a way that I had to take it seriously. I reported this publicly when assured by the president that he welcomed such a reinforcement of his own public statements. Thus, I did not feel that this would violate any pastoral confidences. When asked in a public meeting whether I was being "used" by the president, I replied that I did not think so. But if I was being "used" I was happy to be used to underscore a public apology which he had needed to make. I had no reason to doubt his sincerity.     But repentance is not easy. It may, in fact, be more a process than a single act. We become more aware of what we have really done, the full meaning of our actions becomes clearer to us, we realize the hurt we have inflicted on others. A public figure who is put in the position of having to repeat something over and over again in order to satisfy critics, some of whom doubtless would not have been content with any combination of words, faces especially tough going. Nevertheless, the president understood that his capacity to lead depended very much on his words of repentance being sincere and being taken seriously.     In the midst of all this, at the conclusion of the vacation time, he and Mrs. Clinton went to Russia for a long-anticipated summit conference with President Boris Yeltsin. The press at that conference seemed concerned only with the scandal back home, even though the issues facing Russia and the relationship between the United States and Russia were very important. From Russia the Clintons traveled to Northern Ireland. There they were greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds that hailed the president for his central role in the negotiation of peace between Protestants and Catholics.     Returning to Washington, the president faced a continuing drumbeat of criticism, centering on the adequacy of his confession and apology and his continuing fitness to serve. Speculation began to center on when the special prosecutor's report would be delivered to Congress and what it would contain. The Report was somewhat ceremoniously delivered to Congress on September 9 in the form of 445 pages and sixteen large boxes of supporting documents and tapes. The Report was understood to lay out the case for impeachment of the president. After brief deliberation, the U.S. House of Representatives voted that the Report should be released to the public. It was announced that this would be done on Friday, September 11. The stage was set. Copyright © 1998 J. Philip Wogaman. All rights reserved.