The curtain raiser to the Sept. 11 day of infamy was Bill Clinton's speech to some 100 attendees at the annual White House interfaith religious leadership breakfast. He said during that speech that he had asked many people for forgiveness. To be forgiven, he acknowledged, requires sorrow, genuine repentance, and "what my Bible calls a broken spirit." The latter, he explained, includes "an understanding that I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be." He said "the sorrow I feel is genuine." He said, "I have repented."
Mr. Clinton, however, did not specify what he was repenting of. He did say he had instructed his lawyers to "mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments"-and then added "legal language must not obscure the fact that I have done wrong."
The audience members, overwhelmingly theologically and politically liberal, stood and applauded. Before plowing into their omelets, the leaders stood in line to greet Mr. Clinton and his wife and to offer expressions of spiritual support.
One evangelical attendee at the event, Don Argue, an Assemblies of God college president and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, said of President Clinton: "He's asked for God's forgiveness. I couldn't do any less [than forgive]." (The NAE declined to send an official representative for fear such presence at the event "could be misconstrued." Mr. Argue, who with two other clergy visited with leaders in China at Mr. Clinton's behest and who helped land fellow evangelical Robert Seiple a religious human rights post at the State Department, told WORLD he regretted the NAE's decision to opt out.)
Christian conservatives watching on television were appreciative of Mr. Clinton's talk of repentance. Seminary head Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Christians "are obligated to believe the very best as long as we can." Like a family with a member who has sinned and asked for forgiveness, he said, the nation should forgive Mr. Clinton. But, unlike many theological liberals, Mr. Patterson said the president should accept the consequences of his actions and should resign.
Pastors from various denominations across the country wondered about Mr. Clinton's ability to lead. Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom, former head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, urged Mr. Clinton to "resign immediately." He said: "To fall once and be sorrowful is one thing. To fall again and again and only admit to an 'inappropriate relationship' when one is caught is another."
Sandra Lee, a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Olympia, Wash., complained: "Refusing to face up to what one's done until everybody knows you did it-that doesn't strike me as being strong moral leadership. He hung out until the very last second. That doesn't leave a very good model about living in right relationships."
Roman Catholic Bishop James McHugh of Camden, N.J., wrote in his diocesan newspaper, "My deeper and more fearsome concern is the prevailing public reaction and what that says of the moral fiber of the country.... [Mr. Clinton's] dilemma should be a lesson to the nation that our national mores and attitudes need refashioning."
In a letter sent to 2.4 million U.S. households, James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, said: "What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the president's behavior.... This disregard for morality is profoundly disturbing.... How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world."
One of the many black religious leaders at the White House breakfast meeting, non-Clinton supporter Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Church of God in Christ and popular Dallas preacher, said: "Americans can relate to [the president's] human frailty and are looking to see if it's possible to restore fallen people. What message would we send to the American people if we tell them it's impossible to change? That would be devastating." But he added a question: "Is President Clinton broken enough to repent, but strong enough to lead?"
Two religious leaders at the breakfast pledged to help Mr. Clinton in both his repentance and his future leadership. Sociologist-minister Tony Campolo of Eastern College in Philadelphia and pastor Gordon MacDonald of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass., will visit Mr. Clinton regularly. (Mr. MacDonald went through a process of discipline and restoration after he left the presidency of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1987 following an adulterous affair.) The Clintons' Washington pastor, J. Philip Wogaman of Foundry United Methodist Church, also will be part of the team of spiritual advisors.
"At least one of us will meet with the president weekly," Mr. Campolo said. "We will pray with him, study Scripture together, and do our best to help him as he searches his heart and soul. We want him to understand what went wrong with him personally that led to the tragic sins.... We want to provide all the help that we can to spiritually strengthen him against yielding to the temptations that have conquered him in the past."
The ministers will not be offering "cheap grace," Mr. Campolo said in a written statement sent to WORLD. "But neither do we come in a spirit of loveless condemnation, which would deny to the president the costly grace which we ourselves have received from God.... Gordon and I will be reminding the president that he can trust in Jesus for salvation and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to conquer the demonic forces which have defeated him in the past."