Among the shabbiest of the arguments mounted by Bill Clinton's defenders over the last few months has been the line that all this fuss really has nothing to do with "high crimes and misdemeanors," but is ultimately only about sex.
"Questionable materiality" was the technical term we heard from time to time to downgrade the importance of the president's peccadillos with a variety of women. Mr. Clinton's lawyers on the one hand kept trying to pretend none of these minor things had happened-but on the other hand they insisted that even if they did happen, they were of such a petty nature that they had no relationship to the matters of state.
Most of the country's people had a different, but not much better, take on things. Most citizens apparently weren't saying "even if these things did happen." They argued instead on the basis that "even though these things did happen," it still shouldn't matter. So either way, most citizens last week still seemed to agree that "who-touched-whom-when-where-and-how" had nothing to do with imposing a so-called "death penalty" on the presidential career of Bill Clinton. There is, such people said, no "danger to the state" in allowing a man to continue in office, no matter how wrong and misguided his "private" actions may have been.
It was, after all, only about sex.
So what is sex about? Sex is about the ultimate delights of fidelity, and the final joys of faithfulness. At its best, it is a mystical blending of the physical and the emotional rooted in trust, confidence, certainty, and security. It is two people saying to each other, "I know everything about you-inside and out. There is literally nothing between us; all is visible. And in spite of that, my faith in you is complete. Indeed, even what I don't know about you is also exciting-precisely because our trust is so total."
Sex of this kind, it is not irreverent to note, is also a picture of the high and wonderful relationship that exists between God and His people. We do not have to guess about that because God talks repeatedly in the Bible about "knowing" His people with exactly the same terminology used to describe a man's "knowing" his wife in marriage. It is holy, it is extraordinary, and it is awesome.
But all this, of course, is hardly what Mr. Clinton's defenders were referring to when they said his escapades were "only about sex." They know that the world is full of cheap substitutes for that which sex really signifies. And certainly it is those cheap substitutes they have in mind when they say so dismissively and so disdainfully that the president's behavior was "only about sex."
So it's a measure not only of the president's own impoverished view of his relationships, but sadly of the nation's juvenile perspective as well, that such a reference could be used to describe what his actions were and what they were not. "Don't worry," he and his backers say again and again. "This wasn't about anything important."
Which is exactly why the nation should be so worried. If the president, his aides, and now nearly half the Congress don't understand how their references trivialize the most wonderful of all human relationships, why should we trust their understanding of any other human relationship? If they don't value and appreciate marriage any more than they obviously do, why should they be trusted with international relations? Or labor relations? Or classroom relationships? Or relationships in the military?
It is not too much to say that if a person-especially someone like a president-can't get sex right, he won't get much else right either. After all, we're talking about one of the most basic of all human activities, one we've practiced for thousands of years. For those of us who take the Bible seriously, the rules aren't all that obscure. But even if you don't take the Bible as your guide, the record of what works and what doesn't work is amazingly clear. There are simply some built-in dos and don'ts that you ignore at your own peril.
No, I'm not saying a president has to bring a perfect marriage to the table before he can claim to be ready to lead the people. Marriage has not been mastered by any of us. All that goes into the relationship between a man and a woman is so incredibly spectacular that most of us will still not grasp its full glory even when we are old.
But that's a very different response than the one we've seen from the White House. When someone scorns one of the most breathtaking parts of God's creation, such a person forfeits the right to be trusted as a chief steward of most of His other gifts as well. And if the Constitution doesn't speak to this particular issue, common sense is eloquent enough.