Religious leaders differ on impeachment stands

WASHINGTON (BP)--American religious leaders presented a variety of perspectives on President Clinton both before and after his impeachment.

While some organizations and individuals favored resignation or impeachment for the president, other religious leaders and organizations decried impeachment and called for Clinton not to resign.

Resignation would be a mistake, said Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, after the House of Representatives voted Dec. 19 to impeach Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in his attempt to conceal an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Though Clinton is a member of a Southern Baptist church in Little Rock, Ark., his family and he attend Foundry.

"I think for him to leave office at this point would be the equivalent of having been forced out, and I think that would be a tragedy for the nation," Wogaman told Baptist Press two days before Christmas. "It would probably lead to a generation of deepened polarization in our society, and it would definitely establish a precedent making impeachment and removal from office a much more available weapon in political conflict."

While Wogaman said he does not condone the president's behavior "that led us to this point, I do not feel that impeachment and removal from office are appropriate forms of punishment." Wogaman said he favors censure by the Senate.

Robert Schuller, a well-known religious figure who has counseled Clinton in the past, said after the impeachment vote it might be time for the president to resign.

In a brief opinion piece in the Dec. 21 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Schuller said he hoped a Senate trial could be avoided. If not, the founding pastor of California’s Crystal Cathedral wrote to the president, "I ask that you look within your conscience and summon the will and strength to end this agony. By stepping aside, you can spare our nation weeks, perhaps months, of divisive debate and repulsive testimony. Your action can help restore public confidence in the moral fabric that sustains our form of government and the moral standards we have a right to demand in our leaders."

The Senate is expected to begin a trial shortly after it convenes Jan. 6, but both Democrats and Republicans have expressed a desire for a speedy resolution, according to news reports.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, continued after the impeachment vote his call for the president to resign, a call he initiated in August after Clinton ended nearly seven months of denial by admitting his relationship with Lewinsky. Other Southern Baptist leaders who called on the president to resign included SBC and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and North American Mission Board President Bob Reccord.

On the eve of the House's impeachment debate, Land said Clinton "has lost the moral authority and the trust necessary to govern. He has fallen below the threshold of what is necessary to be able to effectively serve in office." While he supported impeachment, Land said he told listeners to the ERLC's weekday radio show, "For Faith and Family," to call their representatives to express their opinions.

Others campaigned for or against impeachment in the days leading to the House votes. Jerry Falwell urged recipients of his special edition of The Falwell Fax Dec. 11 to call undecided House members and request they vote for impeachment. Falwell's weekly report goes to more than 160,000 evangelical pastors, according to the fax.

The Christian Coalition delivered to Capitol Hill petitions with more than 250,000 signatures calling for the president's impeachment.

People for the American Way, meanwhile, compiled more than 300,000 names on petitions for Congress opposing impeachment. PAW, a civil liberties organization that is a frequent critic of conservative Christian groups, worked with, an on-line anti-impeachment group, on the petition drive.

On the day before the House began debating impeachment, prayer vigils were held on opposite sides of the Capitol building.

The one held on the west side of the Capitol was sponsored by the Rainbow Coalition, which was founded by Jesse Jackson, and attracted about 2,000 to 3,000 participants, according to some news reports. It was unabashedly an anti-impeachment rally, with speakers often attacking Republicans favoring impeachment.

On the east side of the Capitol, possibly 50 to 100 people came at different times to pray at a vigil sponsored by the Christian Defense Coalition, estimated the organization's founder, Pat Mahoney. The meeting was nonpartisan, and participants prayed for direction for the House members, Mahoney said.

Even before the House voted in early October for an impeachment inquiry, more than 30 religious leaders, mostly Christian, Jewish and Muslim, released a statement opposing impeachment. The signers, many who have supported the Clinton administration's policies, said the president's "personal transgressions" did not rise to the level of impeachment and Congress should deal instead with such issues as failing public schools, crime, health care and campaign financing, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The signers included James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; Daniel Weiss, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA; C. Mackey Daniels, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; and Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, RNS reported.

BP was unable to reach Rex Horne, the pastor of the church where Clinton is a member, Dec. 29 for comment. Horne has declined most requests for interviews about the president in recent months. He released a statement in October revealing he had read a letter from Clinton at a morning worship service of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. In the letter, the president "expressed repentance for his actions, sadness for the consequence of his sin on his family, friends and church family, and asked forgiveness from Immanuel," Horne said. Horne declined to release the letter, and BP was unable to learn if Clinton cited the sin or sins for which he sought forgiveness.

Other actions by religious leaders and organizations included:

-- A letter organized by The Institute on Religion and Democracy and signed by nearly 40 people called on Clinton to resign because restoring trust to the presidency "can only be accomplished by your relinquishing your office." Three Southern Baptist leaders were among the signers: Patterson; Mohler and Land. Other signers included Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life; Diane Knippers, IRD's president; and Michael Cromartie, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian leaders also signed onto the letter, which was mailed in mid-November.

-- More than 150 scholars -- many whose schools are not identified with conservative Christianity -- affirmed a statement declining to take a position on impeachment or resignation but expressing concern the religion community is in danger of providing "authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts." The signers included Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, Wayne Grudem of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Robert Gundry of Westmont College, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Eugene Merrill of Dallas Theological Seminary, Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary and Timothy Weber of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. Signers from schools affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or state Baptist conventions were A.J. Conyers and Barry Harvey, both of Baylor University; Mike Garrett of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; David Gushee of Union University; and Mark Seifrid of Southern Seminary.

Download Story