Staples and Tell

Staples and Tell

New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 1998 1:57 PM

Staples and Tell

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Mr. Tell,

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As an editorialist, I have focused primarily on the political dimensions of Monicagate. But as the son of a religious family, I have been personally preoccupied with the moral arguments--particularly those presented by modern day virtuecrats such as William Bennett. To fill you in on the lineage, Mr. Tell, my great-grandfather was a circuit preacher and starter of churches in 18th-century Virginia. My grandmother married a preacher and worked as an evangelist right up to the time of her death 15 years ago. My mother ministers to the troubled to this very day. (Her calling card depicts a pair of hands in prayer.) Scratch this editorial writer and you find a preacher below the skin.

The preacher in me is appalled by Mr. Bennett's attempt to marshal religious argument for political purposes--and especially by his claim that Americans who forgive Bill Clinton are violating biblical law (e.g., p. 119: "We violate God's canons when we invoke forgiveness casually, trivially, promiscuously"). But forgiveness is the cornerstone of New Testament morality. In Matthew 18, Jesus orders Peter to forgive those who sin against him "seventy times seven"--or 490 times. In Luke 17, the faithful are told to forgive a sinner who repents--even though he trespasses "seven times in a day." There is no such thing as "promiscuous" forgiveness in the New Testament world.

Mr. Bennett seems to advocate an Old Testament approach, in which sinners are stoned to death in the town square. But Americans have for the most part rejected that. We only elected Clinton in the first place because Republicans scared us into it with the Holy War convention in Houston in '92. The crucial vote came from reformed pot smokers in the suburbs who were angered by speeches naming them national evil number one. Moralize to us, the voters said, and we will elect a philandering, pot smoking, draft dodging saxophone player--just because we can.  By suggesting a return to jihad politics, Mr. Bennett is leading his Republicans to the slaughter.

No one is beyond the range of biblical grace. But Bill Clinton has indeed tested the limits of political grace. It is especially distressing to see the Congressional Black Caucus fawning over him, when he has exploited race for political gain--and gotten his black cabinet members either indicted or nearly so. But Mr. Bennett's claim that Clinton's personal conduct amounts "to an assault on American ideals" is duplicitous and philosophically naïve. Ideals--like Plato's Good--exist above and apart from grimy, empirical reality. The merely real never intersects the ideal. Americans have grasped this well in Monicagate. Hence the polls showing that voters tend to approve of Clinton's job as president--but do not want their children to be like him. He's not our guiding moral light, the people say; he is just the guy driving the bus.

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Brent

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Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for the New York Times. David Tell is opinion editor and lead editorialist at the Weekly Standard. This week Staples and Tell read The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, by William J. Bennett (The Free Press; 160 pages; $20).