WASHINGTON (BP)--The U.S. Senate's decision not to convict President Clinton of impeachable offenses Feb. 12 has "sown the seeds" for the demise of the country, Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson said.
Patterson's comments came the same day the Senate failed to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the president for either perjury or obstruction of justice. Neither impeachment article even garnered a majority. The vote on perjury was 45 guilty, 55 not guilty. Ten Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in voting not to convict. On obstruction, the vote was 50-50, with five GOP members joining the Democrats.
Had Clinton been convicted on either count, he would have been the first U.S. president to be removed from office under the impeachment process established by the Constitution.
An attempt to pass a censure resolution against the president was expected to be offered the same day but appeared destined to fail.
Calling it a "sad day for America," Patterson said, "The message has now been clearly sent to our children and grandchildren that if you have money or prestigious position or both, your behavior can be totally irresponsible and reprehensible in the areas of sexual morality, truthfulness and faithfulness to personal covenants and commitments. You can still get by with doing whatever you wish.
"We the people of the United States have sown the seeds of the dissolution of our republic," said Patterson, also president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "The sad thing is that the people would apparently have it that way."
The Senate's votes ended a divisive process that resulted in only the second impeachment trial in the country's history, yet found the public overwhelmingly supportive of Clinton's performance as president. Polls showed the public, also by a vast majority, believe Clinton committed perjury but did not want him removed from office.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the Senate's failure to hold Clinton accountable "will be long remembered as one of the most decisive moments in America's moral history. Confronted with one of the greatest moral challenges in its history, the Senate responded with moral apathy."
The losers in the vote are not the managers who argued the impeachment case on behalf of the House, Mohler said, "but the American people. Our moral fabric has sustained great injury. Our moral discourse has been reduced to ridicule, and the American public has cooperated in this moral charade.
"Having sown the wind, we will now reap the whirlwind. In the end, the American people have no one to blame but themselves," Mohler said.
The "most appropriate word for this whole process from beginning to end is 'pathetic,'" said Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"The president's inability to fully come to grips with the shamefulness of his behavior and the fact that he lied under oath, coupled with the congressional inability to rise above petty, partisan bickering and deal in any statesmanlike fashion with the profound issues involved in the nation's chief law enforcement officer doing severe damage to the nation's judicial system by committing perjury and participating in obstruction of justice, reveals a great deal about the men and women we have elected to serve us in public office and even more about us -- the people who elected them. After all, the president, the senators and the representatives in the House are a reflection of the electorate," Land said.
Patterson, Land and Mohler had called on Clinton to resign after he disclosed in August he had misled the country about an improper relationship with Lewinsky. North American Mission Board President Robert E. "Bob" Reccord also asked the president to resign.
Other Southern Baptists who said the president should resign included Wayne Ward, retired Southern Seminary professor who became a personal friend of Clinton when he served in the 1980s as interim pastor at Clinton's home church in Little Rock, Immanuel Baptist, and David Gushee, ethics professor at Union University, a Baptist-supported school in Jackson, Tenn.
Rex Horne, current pastor of Immanuel, had no plans to make a statement for the news media on the vote, a staff member said. Clinton has been a member of Immanuel since 1980, according to church records.
In October, Horne read a letter from Clinton at the close of a Sunday morning service. In the letter, the president "expressed repentance for his actions, sadness for the consequences of his sin on his family, friends and church family, and asked forgiveness from Immanuel," Horne said in a brief written statement.
Clinton's letter was not released, and no audio tape was made when it was read, a church staff member said. BP was unable to learn if Clinton cited the sin or sins for which he sought forgiveness.
One of the remaining questions for the country is whether the federal government can accomplish anything significant, such as Social Security reform, in the remaining two years of Clinton's second term.
The president is angry at House Republicans for impeaching him and intends to mount a "personal crusade," an adviser said, to give the Democrats a majority in 2000, The New York Times reported Feb. 11. He is particularly angry at the 13 House managers who handled his prosecution in the Senate, but most are considered to be in safe districts, according to The Times.
Responding to the report, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart denied there would be an election strategy based on vengeance. He "can't think of a worse, more dumb strategy than going after people based on whether they were a House manager or not," Lockhart said at a Feb. 11 briefing.
The Senate's votes brought to an end a year-long ordeal that was marked not only by shocking discussions in the mainstream media of sex but by divisiveness on a variety of issues, including whether Clinton should leave office, whether his repentance was genuine and whether his church should discipline him.
In a September interview with ABC-TV, Horne said he had spoken with Clinton about the adulterous relationship but did not intend to disfellowship him. The advice he would give the president, Horne said, was: "Just simply to make things right with God and let everything else fall where it will."
The scandal broke forth in January of last year, only days after the president testified in a deposition involving former Arkansas government employee Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against him. News reports alleged a sexual relationship between Clinton and a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton told his family, staff and the American people he had never had sexual relations with Lewinsky. On Aug. 17, however, the same day he testified to a grand jury, he told the American people his testimony in January was "legally accurate" but acknowledged he had an improper relationship with Lewinsky.
He told religious leaders at a White House breakfast in mid-September he was sorry for his sin and had repented but he planned to mount a full-scale legal defense.
The report issued in September to the House of Representatives by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who had been investigating the allegations, charged Clinton not only committed perjury on four matters in the deposition but also on his sexual relationship with Lewinsky before the grand jury. The report included graphic details reported by Lewinsky of 10 sexual encounters between the president and her in the White House's oval office area from 1995 to 1997. Clinton contended he never committed perjury in denying he had sexual relations with Lewinsky.
In December, the House approved two articles of impeachment, one for perjury before the grand jury and the other for obstruction of justice. Both were approved on nearly party-line votes, with five Democrats joining the Republican majority each time. The House rejected two other articles recommended by its Judiciary Committee, one for perjury in the Jones case testimony and the other for abuse of office.
The only previous president to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate was Andrew Johnson in 1868. He survived conviction in the Senate by only one vote.
Clinton is the first elected president to be impeached. Johnson served out Abraham Lincoln's second term after his assassination.
In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, but he resigned before the full House acted.
Lee Weeks, James A. Smith Sr. and Norman Miller contributed to this story.