In the four-plus years since he burst upon the American consciousness,
Bill Clinton has assumed a dazzling range of roles. The talk-show host,
reassuring us with that perfectly timed bite of his lower lip. The
commander-in-grief, feeling our pain after tragedies such as the
Oklahoma City bombing and the explosion of TWA Flight 800. The
Eisenhower Republican, the sort of moderate leader the actual Republican
Party no longer seems capable of producing.
Yet there's one role to which he's peculiarly well suited and that he's
consistently shied away from: that of the nation's chief preacher,
offering some spiritual definition to a presidency that all too often
seem shaped by little more than the previous night's tracking polls.
True, he's tried out the pulpit from time to time. And, as he showed
when he stirringly invoked Martin Luther King in a November 1993 speech
to black ministers in Memphis, he can be moving and effective. But
despite his Southern, church-like cadences and a knowledge of the Bible
that University of Chicago theologian Martin Marty says is matched among
20th-century presidents only by Clinton's fellow Baptists Harry Truman
and Jimmy Carter, Clinton invariably retreats to safer, more sterile
There is one obvious reason for this, of course: Clinton is not exactly
a paragon of personal morality. If he were to attempt to define a more
explicitly spiritual course, he would be hammered by the religious
right. Yet who better than Clinton to emphasize themes such as sin and
redemption, and to invoke a social morality that transcends the
shortcomings of one's own private life? Clinton could define a new
religious liberalism, charting a course in opposition not just to the
religious right but also to the secular left, whose indifference to such
problems as family breakdown and the increasing coarseness of the
culture has rendered it marginalized and irrelevant.
To succeed, though, Clinton would have to win over -- or at least subdue
-- the most powerful secular force in our culture: the media. The
historian and journalist Garry Wills, in his book "Under God" (1990),
writes that because journalists at the most prominent, elite news
organizations are at the top of the socioeconomic scale, they share that
class's distaste for religion. "Some of the glibbest persons in the
nation are oddly tongue-tied when the Bible is brought up," Wills
argues. "And editors seem to prefer inarticulacy on the subject."
As a result, the media are often suspicious of anyone with a spiritual
agenda. Certainly Pat Robertson knows that. So, too, does Hillary Rodham
Clinton, who was mocked in the New York Times as "Saint Hillary" several
years ago when she talked about "the politics of meaning," a phrase
coined by Michael Lerner, the rabbi/psychotherapist who edits Tikkun
magazine. "The inability of liberal forces to address the hunger people
have for some meaning and purpose in life has led to the decline of
liberalism," says Lerner, who criticizes the media for their "cynical"
treatment of spiritual concerns, and whose own views have been lampooned
as New Age babble in publications such as The New Republic, The Nation,
and (yes) Salon.
Difficult as it might be for Clinton to overcome media cynicism, the
rewards both for him and the country could be great if he adopted a more
spiritual agenda. Consider welfare. His own proposal to "end welfare as
we know it" would have cost more than the present system in order to pay
for job training, child care, and health care -- a difficult sell to
jaded voters looking to punish all those mythical "welfare queens." But
by framing welfare reform as a moral and spiritual issue, and by talking
about the community's responsibility to the poor and the poor's
responsibility to the community (think of Mario Cuomo's
Catholic-Democratic notions of society as "family"), Clinton conceivably
could have elevated the debate above the clichéd
liberal-conservative dead end. By failing to take this route, Clinton
was, in the end, presented with a punitive bill that could throw
hundreds of thousands of children into poverty. The final indignity: his
former friend Marian Wright Edelman has accused him of abandoning his
spiritual responsibilities by signing the bill.
Admittedly, Bill Clinton as preacher-in-chief would be a difficult sell.
His personal flaws aside, it could well be that four years of lies,
flip-flops, and political expediencies have robbed him of the moral
authority he would need to pull it off. Martin Luther King chased women
and cheated in grad school; even Jesus liked to drink wine and hang out
with prostitutes. But they, unlike Clinton, never compromised on their
vision for a better world.
Also unlike Clinton, they never had to worry about the media mocking
them on every step of their journeys.