Evangelist Billy Graham told viewers of NBC's Today two weeks ago that he forgives President Clinton because "I know the frailty of human nature.... He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him."
Several things need to be said about this and other remarks. First, in offering Mr. Clinton "forgiveness," Mr. Graham is suggesting there is something to forgive. President Clinton has stated publicly he "never had a sexual relationship with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." He said the same in his deposition to Paula Jones's attorneys.
So for what exactly is Mr. Graham forgiving the president? Is it the sex? Is it lying under oath? Is it blanket forgiveness that also covers illegal campaign contributions, purloined FBI files, suborning of perjury, and the orchestrated cover-up of these and other "sins," or is it a limited immunity? At what point would Mr. Graham point his finger and, like the prophet Nathan, say, "Thou art the man"?
On a theological level, surely Mr. Graham knows that only God can forgive sins and that forgiveness does not precede acknowledgment of wrongdoing and repentance. In the story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus tells her to "go and sin no more." Mr. Clinton could take Mr. Graham's forgiveness (which is really absolution) and see it as permission to go and sin some more.
Furthermore, Mr. Clinton's offenses were not committed against Mr. Graham. The Jews have a saying about the Holocaust: Only the dead can forgive. But in a generation that rarely goes beyond the superficial and focuses on feelings and emotions, we want to appear noble-so we dispense forgiveness unasked.
Mr. Graham, who used to decry cultural decline in sermons that reminded people of the consequences of sin, said on Today: "We're living in a whole different world today, and the pressure on anybody today is difficult." Try this line on your wife if she catches you in a compromising position with another woman: "Honey, you know what difficult times we live in. Even Billy Graham says so."
In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul writes: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out that you can stand up under it."
Regrettably, Mr. Graham wasn't through. He said Mr. Clinton would make a good preacher. Like Jimmy Swaggart? What could he possibly mean? Is he speaking only about the president's oratorical skills, or should a preacher have some personal integrity behind his message?
In the spirit of bipartisan absolution, Mr. Graham said he also forgave Richard Nixon, even though he was shocked by the former president's language on White House recordings. He didn't mention the greater sin of trying to undermine the Constitution. Nevertheless, Mr. Nixon was a "pal" and a "personal friend" and great on foreign policy. This will be good news to Mr. Clinton's defenders who claim only the economy and foreign affairs matter, not personal affairs or integrity.
Mr. Graham isn't alone in withholding judgment (as opposed to judgmentalness-there's a difference) when it counts. Jesse Jackson is said to be offering "spiritual advice" to the Clintons. What does that mean? One can get spiritual advice from a psychic hotline, or one can get God's perspective from a source whose view of sin doesn't change with the times.
In the 1980s, a lot of preachers were compromised because they preferred access to accountability. The White House is a powerful seduction, spurring people-in order to maintain access-to pull their punches and avoid saying what they should say. But they deceive themselves if they believe there is a higher purpose to be achieved in communing with the president.
I've known Billy Graham for nearly 30 years and have written of his supreme integrity. Now that he is in the twilight of his life, at age 79, and suffering from Parkinson's disease, perhaps he and all preachers should impose a moratorium on schmoozing with presidents.
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate