Billy, Hillary, Sin, and America

Two very symbolic Americans -- Billy Graham and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- recently preached very different sermons on the state of nation's soul and what should be done to heal it.

As a rule, politicians receive more media attention than clergy. However, this time Graham was preaching in the U.S. Capitol and he used that pulpit to deliver a sobering call for Americans to repent before it's too late.

Soon, the world "will enter the third millennium," said the elderly evangelist, during May 2 rites in which he and his wife, Ruth, received a Congressional Gold Medal. "Will it be a new era of unprecedented peace and prosperity? Or will it be a continuation of our descent into new depths of crime, oppression, sexual immorality and evil? ... We have confused liberty with license and we are paying the awful price. We are a society poised on the brink of self-destruction."

The first lady's April 24 message to the United Methodist General Conference, meeting in Denver, received less attention. While addressing the same topic -- national renewal -- her message was radically different.

Graham stressed that "America has gone a long way down the wrong road" and now must "turn around and go back and change roads." However, Hillary Clinton argued that Americans must continue to "have courage in the face of change, to be willing to struggle forward doing what we can," seeking unity amid diversity.

"It is easy to complain about the problems that we face," she said. "It is harder -- but far more rewarding -- to roll up our sleeves and work together to solve them."

These were not political speeches, but they offered different answers to a crucial question that looms over national politics in 1996: Is America on the right moral road, or not?

It would be wrong to pin a "Republican" label on Graham's message, or to say that the first lady on this occasion spoke as a Democrat. Still, a kind of party politics was involved. For decades, historians have argued that American Protestantism is a two-party system, with one party emphasizing personal sin and evangelism and the other emphasizing the sins of society and, thus, social activism.

Through the decades, Graham's approach has broadened to include appeals for listeners to carry personal faith into public efforts to fight racism, hunger, poverty and other social problems. Nevertheless, this recent sermon began with the story of his own revival-meeting conversion and stopped just short of offering the assembled politicians, journalists and dignitaries a chance to make public professions of faith in the Capitol Rotunda.

Clinton described her "faith journey" with images familiar to her fellow United Methodists and others raised in oldline flocks, beginning with her christening in an historic sanctuary and continuing through years of church-supported social crusades. She never mentioned "sin" or "repentance." The key, she said, was for people of all religions to cooperate in efforts to help families and strengthen public institutions, schools and social programs.

"We know we need to strengthen the spiritual and moral context of our lives and we know that we need a new sense of caring about one another in which every segment of society, every institution, fulfills it's responsibility to the larger community," she said. "As adults, we have to start thinking and believing that there isn't really any such thing as someone else's child."

Meanwhile, Graham has grave doubts about the ability of "consultations" and "diplomacy" to solve the problems that most plague humanity. A century ago, he noted, optimistic theologians and intellectuals predicted that the "steady march of scientific and social progress" would bring justice and peace. Instead, the 20th century has "been ravaged by ... devastating wars, genocides and tyrannies. During this century we have witnessed the outer limits of human evil."

It is appropriate, said the evangelist, to ask, "Why?"

"The fundamental crisis of our time is a crisis of the spirit," he said. "We have lost sight of the moral and spiritual principles on which this nation was established -- principles drawn largely from the Judeo-Christian tradition as found in the Bible."