Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint, August 16, 2000.
I thought I had spoken my last words about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Like most Americans, I'm sick of it. Then, on the eve of his farewell address to the Democratic National Convention, President Clinton discussed the subject before 4,000 pastors assembled at the Willow Creek Church in Illinois.
Now these comments today are not so much about the president. He will soon be out of office, and we wish him well. But his appearance last week gives us a revealing insight into how American culture has redefined sin and repentance.
Mr. Clinton's remarks were delivered in a Q-and-A with Bill Hybels, the gifted pastor of Willow Creek Church. Clinton told the pastors, "...I wake up every day...with this overwhelming sense of gratitude, because maybe if I hadn't been knocked down in the way I was and forced to come to grips with what I'd done and the consequences of it, in such an awful way, I might not never have had to really deal with it 100 percent."
In other words, the Lewinsky affair was, ultimately, a good thing, because he emerged stronger for having gone through it.
Mr. Clinton then summed things up: "I feel much more at peace than I used to. And I think that, as awful as what I went through was, and humiliating as it was--more often to others than to me, even, sometimes when you think you've got something behind you and then it's not behind you, this sort of purging process, if it doesn't destroy you it can bring you to a different place...."
Pastor Hybels, whom I respect greatly for his ministry--and his ministry to President Clinton throughout his presidency, which I know he did without compromise--rightly tried to keep the focus on issues like sin and repentance. He reminded Clinton of his remarks at a White House prayer breakfast when the president said he had sinned and wronged his family, his Cabinet, and the country.
But the president didn't pick it up.
There was little mention of God and no mention of sin. The emphasis was almost entirely on how the scandal and its aftermath affected Bill Clinton personally--which, of course, entirely misses the point, but does reflect how dramatically our culture's attitude toward 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 this therapeutic 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.