Judgment Day for Clinton?

After the altar call urging sinners to come find salvation, the Rev. Rex Horne read an urgent appeal from a long-time member of Little Rock's Immanuel Baptist Church.

In his handwritten letter, Bill Clinton "expressed repentance for his actions, sadness for the consequence of his sin on his family, friends and church family and asked forgiveness," said a two-sentence press release issued after that Oct. 18 service. Worshippers later declined to say if he named specific sins and the pastor refused to release the two-page text, even to church members. The audio engineer also turned off the church's tape recorder while the letter was read.

And that was that. Responding to outside calls for Clinton to be disciplined, Horne told the Arkansas Baptist newspaper that Immanuel always approaches "the work of the Lord as an autonomous church."

One Arkansas Baptist State Convention official did say that the crisis created "an odd in-between time between forgiveness and justice." But the Rev. Mike Seabaugh said Immanuel's positive response to Clinton's letter showed that "this issue has been dealt with on a spiritual level."

Maybe it did and maybe it didn't, according to "Judgment Day at the White House," an unusual book rushed into print by an ecumenical group of theologians, historians and ethicists, including many outspoken Democrats. It opens with a "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency" (www.moral-crisis.org) which, as of this week, has been signed by 157 scholars.

The declaration includes this stinging critique: "We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. ... We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts."

The result is what Democrat Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago calls the "politics of forgiveness" in which spiritual confession kicks in after efforts to defeat prosecutors and crime labs. Plus, "there is something suspect about a dynamic of forgiveness-seeking that takes place only after various forms of polling ... have gone forward to determine how this strategy will 'play' with the public," she said.

In addition to seeking his home church's forgiveness, the president has confessed his sins at an interfaith prayer breakfast, publicized a tag-team of friendly clergy counselors and allowed his lawyers use "sinful" as one of their main adjectives describing the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The White House has baptized a political and legal crisis in religious images and language, said theologian Gabriel Fackre of the United Church of Christ, who edited "Judgment Day at the White House." The bottom line: the confession of "private" sins trumps a trial for "public" crimes.

"This denial that the private and the public spheres of life are connected is especially troubling," said Fackre. "In reality, it's impossible to separate the two. If you don't have honor, fidelity, honesty and integrity in your personal life then, sooner or later, the causes you work for in public life are going to be imperiled."

On top of that, many people seem to be radically editing centuries of doctrine on repentance and forgiveness, he said. After all, "even the process of religious confession is incomplete without some evidence of amendment of life and a willingness to accept the consequences for one's actions."

Then again, perhaps Clinton represents today's Christian mainstream. After all, it's hard to define "lying" in an era in which so many churches keep debating whether there are any eternal truths and doctrines, argued theologian Stanley Hauerwas, another Democrat who teaches at Duke University. Perhaps the president - like most Americans - truly believes the purpose of faith is to provide "meaning" in his "inner life" and any personal problems should be absolved through Christianized therapy, called "pastoral counseling."

"It is not just that President Clinton has no sense that a public sin requires public penance," said Hauerwas, "but that American Protestantism has no sense of it either. ... The question before Christians is not whether Bill Clinton should be impeached, but why he is not excommunicated."