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Gossip or news?

Gossip or news?

Examining the public consequences of private actions

Has the discussion of President Clinton's purported adultery been gossip we need to avoid or news we need to know?

Clearly, endless speculation about uncorroborated, salacious detail is gossip. It's good that we have judicial proceedings where testimony can be taken under strict ground rules designed to ferret out the truth while protecting the innocent. But what about the basic charge of presidential wrongdoing? For an answer, let's go first to the Bible, then to some classical exegesis, then to some American history.

In the Bible, many passages show how personal lives of statesmen affect a nation. The Bible first discusses selection of leaders in Exodus 18, where Jethro advises Moses to "select capable men from all the people-men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain-and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens." We are told that "Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. He chose capable men from all Israel...." Moral character and capability were not seen as separate issues.

In 2 Samuel 11, look what happens when King David came to think he could conquer at will both foreign lands and a married woman. The crisis began when, "in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war," David did not. As many readers know, he stayed in his palace, from his roof saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, and summoned her. She became pregnant and David conspired with his top general to have Bathsheba's soldier-husband, Uriah, die in a staged military blunder.

The coverup seemed to work: David married Bathsheba and their son was born. Even successfully hidden private action had public consequences, however, because nothing can be hidden from God. David's adultery began a God-given chain of events that included a rebellion against him by his son Absalom, civil war, the loss of 20,000 men in one battle, and further rebellions. It would have been worse, except that David, confronted with his sin, turned back to God, confessing and worshipping.

David's son Solomon as a young man prayed for discernment rather than money or sexual favors, and "the whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom." President Clinton is very smart, and Solomon was every inch a sage, but the brilliant Solomon "loved many foreign women," 1,000 in all, who "turned his heart after other gods." The public result was a rebellion that eventually split Israel split in two.

Many other biblical examples connect God, sex, and statesmanship, and we ignore all this evidence at our peril. For if great Solomon's reign could disintegrate, how much more readily can the tarnished lives of lesser leaders send their lands spiraling downwards? This has been understood by Christian writers over the centuries. One of my favorite comments in this regard comes from Samuel Willard (1640-1707), pastor of Old South Church in Boston. Mr. Willard wrote, "It is of the highest consequence, that Civil Rulers should be Just Men, and such as Rule in the Fear of God."

He continued, "Now, that all these may be Just, it is firstly required, that they have a Principle of Moral Honesty in them, and Swaying of them: that they Love Righteousness, and Hate Iniquity: that they be men of Truth, Exod. 18. 21. for every man will act in his Relation, according to the Principle that Rules in him: so that an Unrighteous man will be an Unrighteous Ruler, so far as he hath an Opportunity."

Let's move on quickly to note the linkage in American history between lying about adultery and lying about other matters. This is evident in the lives of many recent presidents, including Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and--he has finally admitted his long affair with Gennifer Flowers--Bill Clinton.

I do not have room here to go into details that are now in the historical record. But the lesson is clear: Journalists and voters who do not take note of the extramarital activities of candidates and officials are negligent. Faithfulness to a wife is no guarantee of faithfulness to the country: Look at the last near-impeachee, Richard Nixon. Faithlessness, however, is a leading indicator of trouble. Small betrayals in marriage generally lead to larger betrayals, and leaders who break a large vow to one person find it easy to break relatively small vows to millions.

And beyond the public-policy implications, and the question of how unpunished sin at the top teaches our children the wrong lesson, there sits the most basic issue: How can the current crisis be resolved in a way that glorifies God and gives more people, including President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the well-founded hope of being able to enjoy him forever?