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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Ethically Speaking, Adultery Is the Least of Alleged Sins in This Episode

Morals: Scholars and others see Clinton being judged more harshly if he abused his position to take advantage of a much younger woman, then lied.

January 23, 1998|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Few personal sins have more raw power to shock and fascinate or call down judgment and shame than sexual indiscretions.

But what conduct society deems truly sinful is a shifting--and often controversial--subject.

The latest allegations made against President Clinton--the charge, as yet unproven, that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky--appear to have evoked an intense and visceral reaction.

But the reaction, according to scholars, religious leaders and other students of social mores, is not solely--or even primarily--to the allegation of an extramarital sexual relationship. Society has become far more tolerant of adultery. But at the same time, our outrage has increased toward other sexual offenses, particularly those that involve the alleged abuse of power for sexual gratification.

Allegations of sexual exploitation, particularly those that involve a woman who is much younger and less powerful than the man have emerged as a defining point in the evolving ethics of the nation.

"Sexual harassment has become the unforgivable sin," said John Coleman of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a sociologist who holds the Casassa Chair in Social Values.

"There is a kind of new Puritanism. But it's not the sex. Eighteen-year-olds can have sex with one another. It's the power."

To be sure, other significant issues are at stake, theologians and sociologists said, among them a possible breach of trust by the president, and his truthfulness.

But while special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr pursues Clinton's possible involvement with Lewinsky with an eye toward whether the president broke the law by encouraging her to lie and obstruct justice, the public's attention seems riveted on the purported sexual affair itself.

"Sexuality is the most intimate part of our lives. It's the place where most of us feel most vulnerable, where our sense of who we are and our sense of our own character is at stake," said theologian Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena.

It is the disparity in power between Clinton, who was 49 when the affair was alleged to have taken place, and Lewinsky, then 21, that resonates with the public, said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention--the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

"If this is true, you're dealing with the president of the United States . . . and a 21-year-old immediate college graduate at the time who is the employee of arguably the most powerful man in the United Sates, if not the world," Land said.

Clinton, of course, is not the first public figure--political or religious--to become embroiled in questions involving his character.

Television evangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker are still widely remembered for their tearful confessions of sexual improprieties. Historians have also pulled back the cloak of circumspection that for so long hid the infidelities of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, among others.

In a larger sense, America has long been a society whose sexual views have been in tension.

On one hand, a cultural heritage of biblical morality dates to the founding of the Republic. The word "adultery" is mentioned 40 times in the Bible: 17 times in Hebrew scriptures and 23 times in Christian scriptures.

But biblical morality has been repeatedly stretched and at times defied, from the Roaring '20s to the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and '70s.

Despite the dramatic loosening of traditional bounds, however, the allegations against Clinton appear to have generated a deeply felt reaction from much of the public--in large part, scholars say, because of the perception that his conduct would have overstepped the bounds of a relatively new societal taboo: sexual harassment.

While intolerance of sexual harassment--in large part the result of decades of political activism by women--is a relatively new development, the emotions involved go back to the earliest chapters of western religion.

One of the two most evocative biblical narratives for many women, Land said, is the story of David and Bathsheba. In that tale, King David summoned Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, to his palace and had sex with her.

Land's wife, a psychotherapist, recounts that story to women and invariably receives a profound and visceral reaction, Land said. "The reason," he added, "is because this is David's abuse of power, his sending for and then seducing and making this woman his lover. He's the king. It's an abuse of power."

In this case, the reaction appears to have been amplified by the age disparity between Clinton and Lewinsky, who is only a few years older than the president's daughter, Chelsea.

"It's not just a question of a sexual affair," said Father Thomas Rausch, chairman of the theology department at Loyola Marymount.

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