Facing a crowd crazed by the assassination of Martin Lu ther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy pleaded for order. Cities across the nation exploded in flames that night, but in Indianapolis, where Kennedy spoke, calm prevailed.
Twenty-six years later, President Clinton stood near the site of Kennedy’s speech and called for similar miracles in today’s world.
“The city did not burn because people’s hearts were touched. Miracles begin with personal choices,” Clinton told a huddled, rain-soaked gathering at the recent groundbreaking ceremony for a Kennedy-King memorial statue. “In the end, America must be changed by you, in your hearts, in your lives, every day on every street in this country. And you can do it.”
Although the President’s use of religious rhetoric has been a familiar strain throughout his political career, his oft-repeated talk this week of miracles and personal responsibility suggests a calculated decision to articulate a national moral vision.
Despite his activist agenda, Clinton says government programs can only do so much. That’s why he seeks to rally a citizenry he believes is mired in “cynicism, intolerance, incivility and violence.”
In half a dozen speeches recently, Clinton sought to focus his moral vision in a variety of issues.
At an NAACP Legal and Educational Fund dinner, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, while castigating “a new segregationism that would tear us apart.”
To students at Gallaudet University, he lambasted the spirit of pessimism--countering it with recent breakthroughs in South Africa and the Middle East. And in remarks to police officers, he called for a restoration of “the fabric of civilized life” in place of the violent, dangerous and divisive society of today.
Still, some people aren’t buying.
Even as the President urges people to assume greater responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities, he has been accused of sexual misconduct with a state employee during his term as governor. Not everyone believes Paula Jones is telling the whole truth about Bill Clinton’s behavior. But some are inclined to believe her.
“When he talks about morality, knowing the difficulty he has with bimbo eruptions, it’s increasingly hard for people to take him seriously,” said Tim Crater, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Evangelicals in Washington. “And that’s regrettable.”
Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, agrees.
“I’m troubled because the image of the President has been tarnished,” Alamoudi said.
Clinton supporters feel differently.
Rabbi David Saperstein allows that there may be dissonance for some. But he believes Clinton is genuine when he uses the language of religion to describe his political vision.
“Bush and Reagan echoed religious sentiments, but they didn’t go to church and they weren’t as religiously literate as this President,” said Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.
Writing in a recent edition of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Shaun Casey examined the longstanding Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist influences on Clinton’s policies and politics.
Casey suggests that Clinton’s Baptist upbringing as well as his undergraduate education at Georgetown University, a Catholic school, helped him see the relationship of community and personal responsibility.
Clinton has reminded religious leaders of that role during prayer breakfasts, private meetings and public speeches. Last fall, during an address at the Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn., he told an audience of predominantly black ministers that they needed to take greater responsibility for the problems in their communities.
“You gave me this job, and we’re making progress on the things you hired me to do,” Clinton said. “But unless we deal with the ravages of crime and drugs and violence, and unless we realize it’s due to the breakdown of the family, the community and the disappearance of jobs, and unless we say some of this cannot be done by government because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul and the truth of human nature, none of the things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go.”
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow says many Americans are sympathetic to the language of confession, and suggests that Clinton could make use of religious rhetoric to staunch his latest crisis.
“When the public is inclined to overlook personal faults, it is amazingly willing to forgive,” said Wuthnow, a Princeton University professor who studies the role of religion in American society.
“With Paula Jones, some people will say ‘if he ‘fesses up, we can move beyond this.’ It is possible for the American public to look beyond the messenger to hear the message.”