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On the 7th Day, No Rest in Rehashing President's Situation

Religion: Pastors turn to the Starr report for sermon material. Most parishioners figure it's up to a higher power to sort it all out.

September 14, 1998

President Clinton's actions in and near the Oval Office have been the subject of legal, political, cultural and semantic scrutiny in recent days. Sunday they were the recurrent theme of religious examination.

On the Christian day of worship, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's damning report about the president's actions and the president's own confessionary words were the main topics from many pulpits. To gloss them, pastors and their congregations resorted to a multitude of parables and Scriptural passages.

Some preachers preferred to avoid the topic that has saturated the country. In Chicago, a Roman Catholic priest drew cheers when he said in his sermon that he looked not to politicians but to his Bible for moral guidance.

Words of brimstone were heard in some spots in the land. "The president's moral credibility has been destroyed. He has broken trusts with the American people and has been caught in a series of immoral acts that have compromised his presidency," said Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

At other places of worship, though, the scandal mostly prompted words of forgiveness and self-examination. Here are reports from four congregations around the country:

WASHINGTON, D.C. / Relief, Regret Greet Clinton No-Show

The 11 a.m. service at Foundry United Methodist Church is always crowded, and the congregation often includes First Parishioner William Jefferson Clinton. But Sunday, to both the relief and regret of the church's pastor, the president decided at the last minute not to attend Foundry's morning service.

Despite his physical absence, Clinton was deeply present. That would be true almost anywhere in Washington, but it is even more true at the massive gray stone church, which First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has been attending along with the couple's daughter, Chelsea, almost from their arrival in Washington. More recently, Clinton, who is a Southern Baptist, has regularly joined them there.

Clinton has developed a close relationship with the church's senior minister, J. Philip Wogaman, a former professor of Christian ethics. Wogaman was at Friday's prayer breakfast at the White House, where Clinton made his most heartfelt public apology to date.

Foundry is an old church by Washington standards, tracing its beginnings to 1814, and it has long drawn a mix of politicians, bureaucrats and neighborhood residents. More than a dozen presidents, including James Madison, Rutherford B. Hayes and John Quincy Adams, worshiped regularly at Foundry, and Abraham Lincoln occasionally attended services.

As the 11 a.m. service drew near, parishioners craned their necks to see if the first family had taken their places in the front pew. There was the sense that, while people had come to hear their pastor's thoughts in the midst of this moral crisis, they also had come to remind the president he has a place in the Christian community.

"If the president has any hope of weathering this storm, he needs to be visible, and this is one of the most acceptable places for him to be visible," said one man, who described himself as a longtime member of the congregation.

The sermon topic, scheduled long before the debacle with Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky burst into public view, was "A Call to Christian Maturity." Yet Wogaman used the occasion to exhort the congregation to find a way to understand and grow from the president's trauma.

In Wogaman's view, America faces two fundamental choices in responding to the crisis: one spiritual, the other judgmental. He said the spiritual choice came into focus for him at Friday's prayer breakfast.

"The president spoke words of deep repentance and contrition, and I feel I know the man well enough to know it came from the heart . . . because there were no excuses and he committed himself to the hard work of repentance, knowing . . . that it is sometimes the work of a lifetime," Wogaman said.

The second choice presented itself clearly with the release later that day of Starr's report on the Lewinsky affair.

"As it came out in lurid detail . . . enveloped in a climate of judgment and questions of punishment, I thought, which of these defines the soul of America? The way of repentance and forgiveness, or the way of judgment and punishment?" Wogaman asked.

ORANGE COUNTY / Even Worst Sinner Gets a Chance

At Holy Family Cathedral, in a largely middle-class Orange County community, Father Arthur Holquin spoke about finding grace in forgiveness and compassion.

Without directly mentioning Clinton and the furor surrounding the release of Starr's investigative report, Holquin urged about 800 parishioners attending a midmorning mass to rise above the fray.

Arrogance, jealousy and temptation, he said, are as old as time, and have caused pain and hardship for many human beings. But rather than seeking retribution, Christ forgave, Holquin reminded.

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