Dobson and Wallis sing a rare duet

It would be hard to imagine two more radically different evangelicals than Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine.

One is a superstar on the Religious Right, the quietly authoritative radio counselor who has used his multimedia empire to pummel President Clinton and political progressives. The other is a veteran social activist who has fiercely criticized the political establishment from the left on economic and military issues, while needling Clinton and others from the right on social issues such as abortion.

These two voices rarely sing in harmony. But right now, Dobson and Wallis are airing strikingly similar views of the morality play in Washington, D.C.

"Never has an American president been more comfortable with the symbols of religion than Bill Clinton," notes Wallis, in a recent MSNBC commentary. "He seems at ease in any available pulpit. But as adroitly as he has used the name and word of God, Clinton has also abused it. Resignation or impeachment are the political topics now, but the real issue here is moral accountability -- for Clinton and the rest of us."

Dobson agrees that the main crisis is not in the White House. No matter what details spew out about Clinton's moral or legal conduct, most Americans seem convinced they cannot pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong in this case. Perhaps they have lost the ability to make such judgments -- period.

"I just don't understand it. Why aren't parents more concerned?", asks Dobson, in his latest letter to 2.4 million Focus on the Family supporters. "What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? We are facing a profound moral crisis - not only because one man has disgraced us - but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil. And when a nation reaches that state of depravity - judgment is a certainty."

The irony is that this is precisely the kind of fiery rhetoric that Wallis and others focused on mainstream Americans during the Vietnam conflict, the Civil Rights Movement, the war on poverty and the revolutions of Central America. It made sense, a quarter of a century ago, for Wallis and other inner-city activists to start a magazine called "Post American," which evolved into Sojourners. Now, Dobson and many others on the Religious Right also sound like aliens in a strange, amoral land.

Addressing the Clinton crisis, both Wallis and Dobson say it's impossible to dismiss his affair with Monica Lewinsky as a merely "private" since it took place in the Oval Office, with the most powerful boss any government employee could have pairing off with an intern. Any academic leader, military officer, pastor, doctor or counselor who did the same thing would be fired, due to policies that have drawn support both from feminists and moral conservatives.

Dobson and Wallis also believe Americans place too much trust in glib, talented, aggressive people who spin their way to success in a media marketplace. Both worry that Americans now care less about lies and laws, simply because the economy has left them so comfortable for so long. Both fear a rising tide of cynicism.

Meanwhile, the president used a recent interfaith breakfast as a forum to preach to himself on repentance. The audience included many clergy who have prayed with Clinton throughout his tenure, including a famous Nov. 18, 1995, rite in which National Council of Churches leaders laid hands on him and asked God to bless him. It was the day after Lewinsky's second Oval Office tryst with Clinton.

Everyone would have been better off, including the many clergy who trusted him, if the president had confessed much earlier, says Wallis.

"Some of his spiritual advisors have been counseling Clinton for many months to tell the truth about this for the sake of his own soul, his family, and the nation. To mention God now has not persuaded everyone of the sincerity of the president's repentance. My religious mother --who voted for Clinton -- put it this way: 'He didn't really repent, he just got caught.' "