Clinton, Prodigal Son, Owes Nation Detailed Apology

Roll Call
February 8, 1999 Morton M. Kondracke

Not for commercial use, solely for "fair use" discussion and education.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has been analyzed legally, politically, historically and culturally. Let's try theologically.

 A friend of mine who's a defender of President Clinton, Gloria Doyle, declared the other day: "This case is the 'Parable of the Prodigal Son' and you Clinton haters are the older brother.

 "The American people, like their father, love Clinton and forgive him and you guys just can't stand it!"

 Well, I deny being a Clinton hater. I say, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." But her formulation is certainly arresting. And examining it may suggest a just end to the scandal -- a truly contrite and complete apology by Clinton or tough censure by Congress.

 First, recall Jesus' parable, recorded in Luke 12. A rich father lets his younger son have his inheritance early. The son runs away, spends it all on debauchery and ends up broke, cleaning pigsties. He decides to go back home.

 The father sees him coming and before the son can finish his apology, the father orders his best calf killed for a lavish banquet and gives the son a ring and fancy clothes.

 Meantime, the older brother for years has been dutifully working hard in the fields and obeying the rules. When he hears about the celebration, he's furious, remembering that his father never even gave him a goat for his pals to feast on.

 When the older son goes to his father to complain, he's told, in sum: You've had it good here, forget about it. The Bible does not record that he is reconciled to the arrangement.

 I've always thought that this story explains in a nutshell why Jesus was crucified: The righteous rule-makers of ancient Israel couldn't abide a Teacher who preached automatic forgiveness for sinners and scoundrels. The concept would upset the social order.

 There is definitely something in the attitude of righteous Americans -- like, say, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, House Republican leaders and the religious right -- which resembles that of the older brother.

 They are enraged by Clinton's public support and polls showing that big majorities of the people think he committed perjury and obstruction of justice, but want to let him off anyway.

 On the other side, religious defenders of Clinton -- like his local pastor, the Rev. Philip Wogaman -- usually cite Scriptures admonishing people not to judge lest they be judged. Also, like my friend Gloria, they counsel Clinton critics to be forgiving, like the father.

 However, Clinton defenders leave out a big item in the parable and in Jesus' teaching: the issue of repentance.

 When he gets back home, the prodigal son declares, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be your son." He has actually made up his mind to become an ordinary servant in his father's house.

 Religious critics of the President -- such as Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago -- find Clinton's apologies and declarations of repentance hollow and unconvincing. So do I.

 Elshtain said on ABC's "Nightline" last week that Clinton's major statement last September acknowledging sin was "tethered to a kind of defiance and truculence and determination to play hardball all the way."

 Indeed, Clinton has never once acknowledged what he did beyond having an "inappropriate relationship" with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He still doesn't even admit it was sexual. He admits "deceiving" people about it, but not "lying" or coaching witnesses.

 Despite his supposed declaration of repentance, Clinton has done nothing to stop his old aide, James Carville, from waging political "war" on his critics, or Carville's friend, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, from trying to destroy top Republicans.

 Clinton himself took a dig at Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) last month - calling him "sanctimonious" -- for merely wanting to hear from witnesses in Clinton's trial.

 The White House seems to realize that it would be bad form for people there to gloat when the Senate falls short -- probably far short -- of the votes needed to convict him.

 But when one former Clinton adviser suggested that Clinton ought to apologize to the country for the trouble his actions have caused, a current top aide reportedly said that Clinton "won't grovel."

 Clinton should apologize -- and in detail. He had an opportunity at last week's National Prayer Breakfast, but he passed it up.

 If Clinton continues to demonstrate no real repentance, Congress needs to censure him -- not "judging" his personal sins, but condemning the public offenses of lying under oath and attempted obstruction of justice.

 Unfortunately, there's a fair chance that censure moves may fail, as Democrats circulate softly worded resolutions that Republicans won't support and Democrats refuse to use tough language.

 That would be a travesty of justice and a betrayal of a public that has favored censure from the outset. Besides, there's nothing in the Bible that says people who bear false witness should get off scot-free.