Divining Truth on Impeachment

The Chicago Sun-Times
October 10, 1998 James M. Wall

Divining Truth on Impeachment. This is little more than a witch-hunt in the worst Puritan tradition, writes James M. Wall.

As the impeachment process grinds forward, the question must he asked: Are we witnessing a foretaste of what could happen if religious absolutists seized total control of our government? Absolute certainty as to what constitutes moral behavior is a guiding principle of religious absolutists, a principle that evokes disturbing reminders of witch-hunts when the government of the Massachusetts colony was in the hand of religious puritans and evil was lodged in Satan and those “witches” who followed his commands.

In their battle against Satan, Puritan religious authorities brought suspects to trial, and if they found the suspects guilty of acting as Satan’s minions, they punished them according to the impeachment procedures of the day. We are far more sophisticated today than were our forefathers. We no longer “believe” in witches, but we do believe in the presence of evil in society. Trouble is, we can’t all agree on it’s exact manifestation. This theological uncertainty has kept us, until now, from allowing a theological minority to determine governmental actions.

Ann Hibbens, one of the “witches” put to death at Salem, had, according to history scholar Carol Karlsen, initially been “excommunicated from the Boston church 16 years before her witchcraft trial — not for witchcraft per se, but (among other sins) for her obstinate challenge to religious, secular and familial authority, and for her evil influence over other church members” (The Devil in the Shape of a Woman). Hibbens was guilty of not adhering to a standard of moral conduct as set by the contemporary religious authorities. Today, we don’t hang people who are judged guilty of immoral behavior. But we are apparently willing to consider the impeachment of a president for sinful conduct and possibly telling lies about that behavior.

I attended the White House prayer breakfast at which the president acknowledged to a group of religious leaders that what he had done was a sin. His sense of shame was clear and painful to watch; Bill Clinton has been sufficiently punished — or did you miss the four hours of grand jury torture with intimate questions no one should have to answer? His punishment is obvious in the intrusive questioning of Starr’s 500-page report, written in solemn, pious prose that resembles nothing less than the narrative of an old pornographic movie, the kind that warns viewers that they are about to witness evil deeds being shown only for their own good.

The American public has been more tolerant of Clinton’s wrongdoing than have members of Congress now engaged in the impeachment process. Is this a national tolerance for wrongdoing? Not at all. It is, rather, a sense of identification and understanding in a public that voices the age-old confession, there but for the grace of God go I. We are not a people who approve of immoral conduct, but we do understand how passion can overrule good judgment, and how one is afterward tempted to lie about actions evoked by that passion.

There also is no mystery as to why a strong majority of the African-American community so strongly supports Clinton. Anyone who has been frightened at the fear of punishment for unfair, nonexistent or trivial charges — a common African-American experience — can identify with a president caught in Kenneth Starr’s cross hairs.

Punishment should fit the crime. A 5-year old of my acquaintance suggests that a proper punishment for Clinton would be to take television away from him for a whole month. Of course, how would a 5-year-old know that this president would be more than glad to avoid the cries of “he broke the law” from Sam and Cokie and George on Sunday morning, and he would be quite happy not to have to listen to any of the other media martinets.

There remains an ominous smell of sulfur in the air surrounding these impeachment hearings The moralistic language voiced by Clinton’s enemies has a distinct Puritanical tone to it. As historian Karlsen puts it, “Hibbens was executed because these two fears — that witches threatened their neighbors’ well-being, and that they were Satan’s minions — converged in her trial, creating together what one early historian called a ‘popular clamor against her.’ ”

The only way Congress would be able to vote for impeachment, and then determine that the president is guilty as charged, would be for the clamor of the religious absolutists to have made its case that immoral behavior in the White House must be punished. But if Congress does vote to remove Clinton from office, it will do so in the ominous and tragic tradition of those absolutist early American divines who sent witches to the gallows for their own puritanical purposes.

James M. Wall is editor of the Christian Century magazine, which is based in Chicago. This is adapted from a column that appeared in that magazine.

(James M. Wall in the Chicago Sun-Times, October 10, 1998)