A Feel-Good Sacrament
Clinton Bares His Soul” declared the Chicago Sun-Times front page, of President Clinton’s August appearance at Willow Creek Community Church for a leadership conference. During the almost 90-minute interview and question-and-answer session led by Willow Creek senior pastor Bill Hybels, the president said he was in a process of “totally rebuilding my life from a terrible mistake that I made,” referring to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Responding to Hybels’s comment that some people still believe that he never truly apologized for his actions, the president declared that his apology at a National Prayer Breakfast had been “full and adequate.”
But there was little genuine baring of the soul and certainly nothing spiritually edifying taking place at Willow Creek. Sun-Times reporter Ernest Tucker noted that the president “seemed at ease, at times poking fun at himself. The audience applauded and laughed at his Jay Lenolike quips.”
In his Breakpoint radio commentary, Evangelical leader Chuck Colson noted that “you could have mistaken the setting for the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’.” The president offered “little mention of God and no mention of sin.” Instead, he said in reference to his affair with Lewinsky, “I wake up every day, no matter what anybody says, with this overwhelming sense of gratitude. If I hadn’t been knocked down in the way I was and forced to come to grips with what I’d done and the consequences of it, I might not ever have had to really deal with it a hundred percent.” He also noted, “two-thirds of the American people stuck with me. That’s an incredible thing. . . . In a funny way, when you realize there is nothing left to hide, then it sort of frees you up to what you ought to be doing anyway.”
Colson called the event a “graphic demonstration of the Oprah-izing of American values,” and observed that the president’s words were steeped in the language of American therapeutic culture, in which self-fulfillment reigns and one’s feelings about oneself are not only the center of attention but the only criterion for judgment. But even if “American culture has redefined sin and repentance,” as Colson put it, is it too much to ask that the Church at least maintain the godly definitions? Apparently it is: Clinton left to a standing ovation of 4,500 Christian leaders. (Another 6,000 watched by satellite.)
Even if one accepted the president’s apology, it is fair to ask why Christian leaders would give a standing ovation to a president who at every opportunity has waged war on unborn children. From the very first day of his presidency, when he signed three executive orders against the unborn, until the final year of his presidency, when he struck down a ban against killing viable babies nearly out their mothers’ wombs, Clinton has participated in shedding the blood of innocents. Of this he has never repented or apologized. And this is not to mention his steady promotion of homosexuality as well.
Such is the man who was invited to come to Willow Creek to edify the faithful. This he did by saying things like, “I feel much more at peace than I used to.” Apparently those Christian leaders who gave Clinton a standing ovation also feel at peace with him (more than they used to?) and believe that he has much to teach them about Christian leadership.
Pastor Hybels, a very gifted and influential leader, certainly must have known what he was doing in bringing the president to his church. Hybels has been one of Clinton’s personal spiritual advisors throughout his presidency and for a time has been holding monthly sessions with him, during one of which he invited the president to come to Willow Creek.
When Christians gather together for a spiritual purpose—for the edification of leaders, as was the case here—it is fair to ask what the faithful are supposed to receive. What did Willow Creek Community Church’s leadership think they were offering in the way of spiritual goods? What the faithful got, instead of the instruction in godly leadership they had a right to expect, was seduction.
How could they be so vulnerable to the words of a man said even by his supporters to lie easily? I got my first confirmation of Bill Clinton’s seduction of certain American Evangelicals two summers ago during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A prominent Evangelical speaker and writer, Philip Yancey, brought up Clinton during a panel discussion at a conference on C. S. Lewis. Some on the panel had criticized other American Evangelicals (and fundamentalists, particularly) for fighting in the “culture wars” on everything from abortion to prayer in the schools to homosexuality.
Addressing the 600-plus (mostly) Evangelicals present, Yancey ended his remarks by informing us that he had been privileged to meet and interview the president privately. And then he told us how Clinton had shared with him an important point, namely, that there is a difference between private morality and public morality. That piece of wisdom was left in our laps by an Evangelical leader as a saying worthy of all acceptance, though it came from a president with obvious self-interest in separating the two.
At Willow Creek not only was similar wisdom placed into the laps of an obliging audience, but its source was brought in to deliver more oracles of the therapeutic feel-good culture live on stage. The standing ovation given to the performance of a ruthlessly pro-abortion president, now facing indictment for obstruction of justice and perjury, marks the triumph of the personal over the moral for those Christian leaders.
There was a spiritual transaction taking place in the gathering of Christians to witness Clinton allegedly “bare his soul.” It was a participation in the novel public sacrament of personal sharing. The exposure of the president’s personal experience and the baring of his private feelings, writ large by virtue of their belonging to an American president, apparently were too tempting for those responsible for this event, even though they “agonized, prayed, engaged in animated debate and prayed more” before deciding to allow Hybels to interview Clinton. (In other churches, such personal experiences are exposed and private feelings bared not in public but in a confessional.)
For Christians of this sort, morality is now private and not public—not in the sense Clinton seems to have meant, that what a man in power does in his “private” life is no one else’s business, but in the sense that moral standards are now personal and subjective and not eternal and objective. Sins are “mistakes,” one is not caught but “knocked down,” and no one asks you to repent as long as you learn from the experience, grow, and move on. And no one asks you to repent of sins (like promoting abortion) you yourself do not feel are sins.
And we would be remiss not to point out that the same ingredients—private morality, personal stories, feelings, sharing—have produced in the mainstream churches the approval of what some call “homosexual Christians” without any requirement that they repent and amend their lives. It is only a matter of time before those who have embraced the novum sacramentum of personal experience will accept, indeed promote, homosexuality as a legitimate and godly lifestyle.
Is a certain segment of Evangelicalism, lacking the weight of history and gravity of tradition and generally ineffective in shaping political and cultural forms, so self-consciously aware of its junior status in the culture, of its youth and lack of sophistication, that it is susceptible to seduction? Certain Evangelicals have been mesmerized by a Southern Baptist, Bible-toting American president who exhibits none of the moral earnestness of real Southern Baptists (or many other Evangelical Christians for that matter) but who is willing to direct his approving celebrity gaze in their direction, and speak the language—in some circles the new and improved Christian language—not of sin and repentance but of therapy and feelings.
The president is by all accounts one of the most charismatic men ever to occupy the White House. So what you had at Willow Creek was a spiritual version of the Monica Lewinsky affair: Clinton got to bare himself and some obligingly made him feel good about himself for doing so—and they (like Monica) thereby felt good about themselves for making him feel good about himself. So everyone felt good and Pastor Hybels pronounced what can only be described as a feel-good absolution. At the end, according to the Tribune, Hybels and Clinton stood before the crowd; Hybels then “put his arm on the president’s shoulder and prayed: ‘Thank you, God, that you wired him up the way you did’.”
If feelings are what count in religion, then Clinton himself played the perfect evangelist at Willow Creek. Eleven thousand approving converts in one evening is impressive. Chuck Colson said that the president’s performance displayed the Oprah-izing of American values, but the episode at Willow Creek was more than that: it was the Clintonizing of Christians who should know better.
—James M. Kushiner, for the editors
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“A Feel-Good Sacrament” first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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