Author and cultural critic Neal Gabler says Clinton's presidency was turned into "a struggle between the forces of cultural secularism and moral religiosity," and that "impeachment was to be the Armageddon."
In a commentary published in The Los Angeles Times and The International Herald Tribune this week, Gabler says future historians will probably see the impeachment and trial of the country's 42nd president in the Monica Lewinsky scandal as "one of the major battles in an ongoing cultural war," and the man himself as "the whipping boy of America's third great awakening."
A senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, Gabler describes that awakening as "a powerful religious revival that decisively reshaped the political landscape." Beginning in the 1980s, the movement has made allowance for salvation through conversion, but at its core "seems more interested in attacking miscreants than saving them," he says.
In his farewell address to the nation after eight years in office, President Clinton said American families and communities were stronger than ever. He said he had steered his course "by our enduring values." Urging the country's continued leadership in world affairs, he said the nation also needed to work on overcoming differences at home.
Gabler says the third great religious awakening has taken its political mission even more seriously than the previous movements "and aims it more directly at its enemies." He said it organized ad hoc campaigns and mobilized support for and involvement in the Republican Party, converting it from "a political organization dedicated to effecting policy, as parties traditionally did, into one that was also dedicated to eradicating sin, which is an entirely new function."
Gabler says the transformation of the GOP into a "religious instrument" is "probably the biggest American political story of our time, and one of the biggest cultural ones too." Long before the Lewinsky affair, President Clinton was "everything the awakeners detested, everything they believed was leading the country astray."
When the Lewinsky scandal broke, "the awakeners bagged their sinner and could subject him to ritual damnation." Whether he becomes viewed as a champion of secular tolerance or a symbol of immorality, Clinton will "most certainly be defined by his relationship to the third great awakening rather than by the achievements of his administration."