Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint, August 16, 2000.
I thought I had spoken my last words about theClinton/Lewinsky scandal. Like most Americans, I'msick of it. Then, on the eve of his farewell addressto the Democratic National Convention, PresidentClinton discussed the subject before 4,000 pastorsassembled at the Willow Creek Church in Illinois.
Now these comments today are not so much about thepresident. He will soon be out of office, and we wishhim well. But his appearance last week gives us arevealing insight into how American culture hasredefined sin and repentance.
Mr. Clinton's remarks were delivered in a Q-and-Awith Bill Hybels, the gifted pastor of Willow CreekChurch. Clinton told the pastors, "...I wake upevery day...with this overwhelming sense ofgratitude, because maybe if I hadn't been knockeddown in the way I was and forced to come to gripswith what I'd done and the consequences of it, insuch an awful way, I might not never have had toreally deal with it 100 percent."
In other words, the Lewinsky affair was, ultimately,a good thing, because he emerged stronger for havinggone through it.
Mr. Clinton then summed things up: "I feel much moreat peace than I used to. And I think that, as awfulas what I went through was, and humiliating as itwas--more often to others than to me, even, sometimeswhen you think you've got something behind you andthen it's not behind you, this sort of purgingprocess, if it doesn't destroy you it can bring youto a different place...."
Pastor Hybels, whom I respect greatly for hisministry--and his ministry to President Clintonthroughout his presidency, which I know he didwithout compromise--rightly tried to keep the focuson issues like sin and repentance. He remindedClinton of his remarks at a White House prayerbreakfast when the president said he had sinned andwronged his family, his Cabinet, and the country.
But the president didn't pick it up.
There was littlemention of God and no mention of sin. The emphasiswas almost entirely on how the scandal and itsaftermath affected Bill Clinton personally--which,of course, entirely misses the point, but does reflect how dramatically our culture's attitudetoward sin and forgiveness has changed.
Over these past 30 years, we have witnessed what sociologist Phillip Rieff calls the "triumph of the therapeutic." Psychotherapy, with its emphasis on individual fulfillment, crowds out concern for others. All that matters is that, through something like this, individuals "find themselves." It doesn't matter what's happened to God or to others.
The president's words were steeped in thistherapeutic language. If you didn't know that he was speaking to pastors, you could have mistaken the setting for the "Oprah Winfrey Show." Winfrey has indeed become the high priestess of the therapeutic culture.
The president's remarks stand in marked contrast to the words of another leader caught in sexual sin 3,000 years ago. David wasn't thinking of himself when he wrote "have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your unfailing love.... Against you, you only, have I sinned." David, you see, understood that true repentance leads to anguish over how God and others are affected by one's individual behavior.
We don't know why the president chose to appear before the pastors at Willow Creek, but we do know what he accomplished: a graphic demonstration of the Oprah-izing of American values.