Paul Richardson reflects on the moral implications for us all when domestic secrets become the News of the World
Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, the churches in the US do not appear to have be very concerned about the Monica Lewinsky affair. A local clergyman and a well-known evangelical theologian have been counselling the erring President while the Rev Jessie Jackson has always been on hand to offer guidance and comfort. What has gone unreported in the media in this country (even in the church press) is the fact that in November, 1998, 85 distinguished theologians and church leaders, including Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps America’s most eminent Protestant ethicist, and Richard Neuhaus, editor of First Things, signed a letter deploring the way in which a ‘serious misunderstanding of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for religious purpose’ by the White House.
According to their ‘Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency’, Clinton’s behaviour has created a ‘moral confusion’ that threatens ‘the integrity of American religion and the foundations of a civil society’. The statement goes on to suggest that Clinton’s supporters have adopted a ‘premise that violations of….. ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy’. (The Christian Century, December 2nd, 1998).
The moral conduct of political leaders has also become an issue in Britain wit h the resignations of three cabinet ministers, the saga of Robin Cook’s divorce, and the unsavoury revelations over the past eighteen months about the behaviour of several Scottish Labour MPs. Sleaze undoubtedly played a part in bringing down the Major government but there are also signs that in both Britain and the US that the public is prepared to forgive moral lapses by leaders. Paddy Ashdown’s popularity went up in 1992 when he admitted to a past affair while Bill Clinton’s ratings soared as the allegations against him grew ever more sordid. The Bishop of Liverpool argued in an article last year in the News of the World that we cannot ignore the morals of our political leaders but I suspect that many
Christians would sympathise with Bishop Richard Holloway’s verdict that ‘moralising’ is ‘one of the least attractive human characteristics’ (The Times, 16111/95).
Clearly distinctions have to be made. Corruption and the sale of political influence are universally condemned. Most people will agree that legislators need to keep the laws they are responsible for framing. Driving above the speed limit and other minor infringements are one thing; perjury and conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice are quite another. It is a weakness of a Presidential system that it is far more difficult to call the executive to account for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ without major political upheaval and national trauma than it is in a Parliamentary democracy. Many people in the US are concerned about the way Bill Clinton has behaved but wonder whether his conduct is sufficient grounds for removing a President with a direct popular mandate.
More dispute surrounds the issue of character and personal morality. Robin Cook broke no laws when he dismissed his wife in the VIP lounge at Heathrow but did he still show that he was fit to hold high office in the government? Would President Clinton have deserved censure from anyone except his wife if he had not lied about his encounters with Monica Lewisnky in the Oval Office” Today the media is quick to find an excuse to tell us about the private lives of our political leaders but in the past people like John F Kennedy were able to hide their misdeeds from the public gaze. History full of examples of effective statesmen like Palmerston or Lloyd George whose private lives left much to be desired. There are also cases of leaders like the unfortunate King Charles I who were irreproachable in their private conduct but are considered failures in political life.
Yet there are reasons to believe that it is unwise to divorce personal character and public role completely. In the present climate, nothing will stop the media feeding the public appetite for scandal. What could once be kept secret now causes banner headlines. Politicians who make fools of themselves in their private lives risk becoming figures of fun and are forced to spend time and energy in restoring trust at home and trying to neutralise damaging media attention. Their effectiveness in government can be impaired and they cannot expect to be taken seriously when they call for policies to strengthen the family, reduce teenage pregnancies or ‘encourage responsible fatherhood – all measures that are very much needed in Britain today. In the 1996 election Bill Clinton risked charges of hypocrisy when he defended the virtues of the two-parent family.
In the second place we should not forget the long tradition in Christian theology that has stressed the unity of the moral virtues. St Thomas Aquinas was quite clear that you cannot practise some moral virtues without practising others. He would have rejected the modern ideal that we can compartmentalise our lives. A man who cannot control his lust or his bad temper will be unlikely to display prudence and self-control in other areas of his life. Aquinas stands in a long tradition here that includes such writers as Cicero, Gregory the Great and Augustine. Contemporary moral theologians like Stanley Hauerwas as well as a number of secular philosophers emphasise the importance of moral virtues and see them as shaping character. What matters is not much that we keep the rules as that we become good men and women. Growing into a truly virtuous person able to make wise and prudent decisions and to resist all manner of worldly temptations may sound a very difficult ideal but it is surely one we should all at least try to realise in our lives. It is important to remember that we are not just talking about sexual failures here. There are good reasons to worry about someone who appears intelligent and efficient but shows streaks of arrogance or intolerance.
When we actually look closely at the biographies of past leaders, it is sometimes possible to see how moral weaknesses were related to political failures. The historian Thomas C Reeves entitled his life of John F Kennedy ‘A Study in Character’. One of his major themes is that faults in Kennedy’s character influenced his policy decisions. Typical was his attitude to Cuba that led the world to the brink of war. Reeves sees the president’s policy as being characterised by macho aggressiveness, by a love of intrigue and conspiracy, and by a readiness to ignore moral and legal considerations for the sake of winning.
Nigel Hamilton had to abandon his life of Kennedy when the family prevented him having access to papers said to reveal that the president was compelled to allow financial misdealing in the White House to go unpunished rather than have his private life exposed. According the Hamilton, Kennedy was brought up by his father to believe that the most important thing in life is to be a winner even if this means bending the rules occasionally. In the case of Kennedy it is also possible to see how a political leader can become so obsessed with his private affairs that he has not enough time to devote to matters of state. There was at least once occasion (and probably more) when Kennedy evaded security guards to meet with a girlfriend and was out of contact with the famous black box that controls America’s nuclear force. When a scandal breaks in the media, the amount of time that has to be given to damage control can absorb most of a politician’s attention.
In 1994, half way through Bill Clinton’s first term of office, Joe Klein wrote a piece for Newsweek that has been widely quoted arguing ‘rig that the president’s failure to pursue a consistent foreign policy reflects the immaturity in his character that is also to be seen in his sexual life. Klein claimed that Clinton’s lack of moral fibre means that his is always ready to ‘shave, wheedle, compromise and cajole until he finds common ground’. As a result his policies lack consistency or purpose. It is unlikely that Clinton will go down in history as one of America’s great leaders. He has lacked the political courage to fight Congress over the issue of welfare reform and backed off attempts to improve Medicare. Few observers believe that he is responsible for the sustained economic growth that the country has enjoyed during his presidency.
Most of us want to respect those who are in power. It may be unfair, but we ask our leaders to show moral qualities of honesty, good judgement, industriousness and fairness and to serve as role models. As Sue Chapman has pointed out in The Spectator (30/1/99), Crown Prosecutors can ask for a person’s position of authority or trust to be taken into account by the courts. Of course, all of us make mistakes and Christianity teaches that we are all sinners. There are times when it is appropriate to forgive and forget. Paddy Ashdown was quite rightly forgiven for his own admitted lapse. Leaders cannot be ‘judged by wholly unrealistic standards. What is serious is wilful and persistent behaviour that consistently flouts accepted moral norms .
An interesting feature of the Clinton affair has been the way in which those very same guardians of the political correctness who were quick to condemn Clarence Thomas for allegedly making improper sexual innuendoes in conversation with Anita Hill have tried to excuse the President for his much more offensive behaviour to Paula Jones. Some of the language used about Paula Jones (‘some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks’) has been extremely unpleasant. Liberals can be quick to make moral attacks on other people but slow to accept that people from their own ranks must be judged by exactly the same standards. Imagine the outcry if someone in Reform or Forward in Faith had made the kind of comments Jack Spong made before Lambeth! Would such a person have been allowed even to attend the conference’.?
In Britain, as in other western societies, we are facing a massive moral crisis. Violence has reached alarming proportions with an estimated 1,000 doctors being assaulted each year and numerous attacks also taking place or other professional people like teachers, social workers or clergy. Robbery and arson attacks are now common. One in three churches can expect to be the target of some kind of attack each year. Forty per cent of street robberies and a third of burglaries and car thefts are thought to be the work of children aged between ten and fourteen and to be mainly committed in school hours. The illegal drugs industry now represents a turn-over of £ 10 billion a year.
In such a society can we afford leaders who do not at least try to set an example and command respect in their personal lives?
Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Newcastle.