Religion News '98 -- The Bible, sex & perjury

There were only two people in the office, so historians may never know the truth about some of the most important meetings in William Jefferson Clinton's life.

No, this isn't about the Oval Office.

These pivotal talks would have taken place in the Rev. W.O. Vaught's office at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, or at the Arkansas governor's mansion. The young Clinton claimed the feisty Southern Baptist as his spiritual father and constantly sought his wisdom about complex moral issues. Vaught died just as Clinton rose to national prominence.

It was Vaught who told Clinton that the Bible didn't forbid the death penalty. He also said that personhood begins with the first breath, because the Bible says life was literally breathed into man at creation. This helped the governor decide that abortion wasn't murder.

Still, it's impossible to know if the future president ever asked his pastor what the Bible does or doesn't say about adultery and the moral status of sexual acts other than intercourse. But somewhere along the line, according to Monica Lewinsky and others, Clinton became convinced this was another complex issue on which he was going to have to read the Bible and, claiming his doctrinal freedom as a Baptist, make up his own mind.

The rest is history. Thus, members of the Religion Newswriters Association have voted the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal - with its undercurrents of sin, confession and forgiveness - as 1998's top religion news story. The president also was named Religion Newsmaker of the year, finishing in a tie with Pope John Paul II, who marked the 20th anniversary of his pontificate with ``Fides et Ratio,'' another encyclical on faith, reason and moral absolutes.

Debates about Clinton, the Bible and sex are sure to continue. After all, the president's biblical exegesis is the linchpin for his claim that he didn't commit perjury by denying under oath that he had a "sexual relationship" with Lewinsky. How could he knowingly have lied if he sincerely believes the Bible doesn't teach that oral sex and masturbation equal "sexual relations" or sexual intercourse?

"Perhaps we should just say that Clinton is being very literal - legalistic even -- about how he reads the Bible, when it serves his purposes to do so," said Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz of Vancouver's Regent College, author of "Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective." "It's true that the Bible may not clearly address each and every kind of sexual act. But if Clinton is using that as a justification to split hairs, then he has simply missed the spirit of everything the scriptures have to say about marriage and sex."

The other top stories in the 1998 Religion Newswriters Association poll were:

2. One million Cubans worship with Pope John Paul II in Havana's Revolution Square, where he calls on Fidel Castro's government to offer new religious and political freedoms. The pope also criticizes the U.S. trade embargo.

3. A United Methodist court fails, by one vote, to convict the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Neb., of violating church doctrine by performing a same-sex union ceremony. The church's Judicial Council later strengthens the law against such rites.

4. The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Salt Lake City, resolves that wives should "submit graciously'' to the "servant leadership'' of their husbands.

5. The murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming, leads to even more debates about homosexuality, including the work of ministries led by former gays and lesbians.

6. The Vatican expresses remorse for the cowardice of some Christians during the Holocaust. But its defense of Pope Pius XII draws criticism from some Jewish groups. The pope later canonizes Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to Catholicism and died in Auschwitz.

7. Led by Third World traditionalists, especially from Africa, the 13th Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops declares homosexual practice incompatible with scripture.

8. Debate about the morality of assisted suicide increases as Michigan attempts to prosecute Dr. Jack Kevorkian on charges of murder, after "60 Minutes" airs a tape showing the death of one of his patients.

9. National Baptist Convention President Henry Lyons confesses an ``improper relationship'' with an aide and is indicted on 56 federal charges, including extortion and fraud.

10. Texas executes Karla Faye Tucker -- a pick-ax killer turned born-again Bible teacher -- despite appeals from the pope, broadcaster Pat Robertson and others.