Dean Baxter: “Fig Leaves, Politics and Christian Faith”
For sometime now our nation has been in the midst of a painful ordeal, made acute this past week by the confession of our president that he had lied about an affair with a young White House intern. This has been particularly difcult for some of us, given what we have considered numerous displays of moral courage. Many citizens have applauded his confronting many critical and difcult issues of our common life such as health care, social security and balancing the budget. Mr. Clinton had the moral courage to say something was seriously wrong with welfare and afrmative action. But he had the further courage to incur the wrath of both liberals and conservatives, stressing that the morally responsible direction is to “mend and not end” these programs. He has stood strong for the civil rights of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. Even those who have disagreed vehemently with his social initiatives still credit him and his administration for this extended season of peace and economic prosperity at home and for his strong determination in foreign affairs.
All of this has allowed many of us to hope that the continuing haunts of personal immorality were no more than distorted shadows cast by political detractors. We may yet have legitimate suspicions about the political motivations of these endless investigations. However, we can no longer deny that the haunting shadows we have dreaded are indeed much more the sad reections of a soul we would love, than the projections of a partisan body politic that would assault it.
This week I called an international businessman and Cathedral trustee. When he answered the telephone I asked him how he was. He said, “I feel like a battered spouse.” “A battered spouse?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “I love and support this president, but his character keeps abusing me. Ken Starr, like a policeman, keeps coming to the door and he says, ‘I hear something is wrong.‘ And I say, ‘Go away, this is not what you think. Anyway, this is a private and personal matter and he is not like this all the time.‘ Well, the policeman‘s back again, and this time I can‘t deny that something is terribly wrong!”
Jesus taught, “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). And I know all too well the truth that St. Paul taught, “that all [you and I] have sinned and fallen short of God‘s glory” (Rom. 3:23). But this is not judging; it is acknowledging a painful truth. I still believe Mr. Clinton loves his country and his family and his God; and I know God loves him. But our desire to keep sin private or ignore immorality is a judgment upon all of us. Unless we acknowledge moral failing—without excuse—the soul of our nation will not heal. More importantly, our children will be even more confused as to whether the truest treasure of our common life is found in the state of the economy or the character of our moral integrity.
As I pondered the events of past weeks, searching for spiritual and theological meaning, the rst image that came to mind was that of g leaves. The imagery comes from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After the Fall the Bible says: “And [Adam and Eve] knew that they were naked; and they sewed g leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:7).
Almost without fail, most casual readers see sex in this scene of the Eden story: the power of its drive; the curious mystery of gender distinctions; and the ambiguity we often feel about that part of our being. Comedians know that the best jokes are about those things of which we are commonly most anxious or conicted. When it comes to sex, there are probably more jokes about Adam and Eve in the garden than any other context.
An informed reading of the Eden story reveals that the g leaves were part of a much larger effort of Eve and Adam to hide their disobedience from God. The act of making coverings of g leaves symbolized the mutual making of a social contract, a moral agreement of sorts, between Adam and Eve. You will remember the text reads, “[And they] made loincloths for themselves.” It was a joint project with mutual responsibility.
But it was also a joint effort to engage in a contract with God. When a contract is made with God it becomes more than moral; it is holy. Indeed, the Bible suggests that God accepted, conrmed, even blessed this agreement by making more permanent garments for Adam and Eve from animal skins (Gen. 3:21). And what is this moral and holy contract? What is it that the g leaves symbolized? I call it modesty!
I have a friend who is appalled by the word modesty because he says it smacks of Victorianism: that is, nostalgia for an age of oppressive social rules, repressed emotions and moral arrogance. But the dictionary denes modesty as free from excess, demonstrating self-control and to be responsible in behavior toward others. The g leaves between Adam and Eve were a sign of respect and mutual responsibility.
I believe that there is a social agreement in human society, among the children of Eve and Adam; a standard that is often abused but is still the barometer of moral behavior, and that is modesty. We do not expect perfection in every phase of our living, but we do expect—including in sexual matters—responsible behavior, self-control and respect for the sensitivities of one another. And people of faith understand that this commitment is not just moral but it is also holy—it is blessed of God. Responsibility, self-control and respect: this is modesty, our moral contract as a community.
Even if we reect upon the sixties and seventies, the “Age of Aquarius” is still judged by this moral contract. The reason we still speak about these years as a period of social and moral aberrations is that they so dramatically violated the principle of modesty. It is important to remember that not everybody in the sixties and seventies, perhaps not even the majority of young people, espoused promiscuity, scorned commitment or practiced free love. And few look back on this time as a model for raising their own children.
But what eventually seduced most of us was an intense obsession with success and material gain. And we still struggle with that demon. Like the serpent in the garden it is this demon that tells us, “If the economy is okay, then personal behavior does not matter.” This week, following a meeting in downtown Washington, I spoke with a young mother, who also is a successful MBA. She said to me, “I now realize, more than ever, that I not only want to live in a country where I can ourish economically and professionally, but more than ever I realize how much I want a country where I can raise my children in a moral climate. And I believe a president‘s personal behavior does affect that climate.”
We must all ask, how much responsibility do we bear for a climate that seems to tolerate moral irresponsibility in every sector of our society, including religion? A climate regularly revealed in the polls that allows a moral contract to be private and not communal because the economy is good. What has happened to a nation more concerned about its wallet than its soul?
Psalm 106:15 speaks of Israel‘s obsession with material gain. The psalmist wrote: “God gave them their [material desire] but sent leanness into their soul.” Some of us want more civil rights, some of us desire more economic security and some more professional actualization. Some among us seek more political inuence and still others just want to be left alone. But in seeking what we want, have we neglected the social contract of moral responsibility?
The contract of modesty belongs in business, religion and the social sector, just as it does in politics. But we often wink at its abuse in politics because we say politics is about the negotiating of power; we believe that politics, by nature, is dirty work. But I know some very ne politicians and they remind me that politics is also about stewardship: the stewardship of values.
Ultimately, what should make us respect leaders in a democracy is not simply intelligence, charisma, competence with power, ideology or any professional skill or native gift. The key characteristic of leadership in a democracy is the ability to demonstrate morally accountable character. Ultimately, the real power of politics is moral!
There are times when we as citizens need to be called to accountability; accountability for the care of the poor, for the education of children, for the inclusion of the marginalized or for defending our liberties at home and abroad. We want to believe that if our sons and daughters are called to offer their lives in the interest of democracy that the call will have moral authority as well as political or economic expedience. The real power of politics is moral. In leadership, therefore, immodesty or immorality is never private for it affects the ability of a people to grant permission to lead.
Jesus warned us when he said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:2–3). This is not some punitive threat by God but Jesus simply reminding us of a human reality.
I want to say a word to the young people who are here today. First, I want to stress that a particular sin or failing is not the complete measure of us or anyone else. Our failures can always be an opportunity to start again. But if we do not face ours sins and correct them, no matter how hard that may seem, they will eventually consume us and all that we cherish.
In our social relations, including our sexual relations, God expects us to respect one another, to demonstrate self-control and to be responsible for our sins and failures. This is modesty. Arrogance is feeling that we are above the expectations and disappointments of God and others. Modesty is accepting responsibility, amending our lives and moving on, without excuse, even when there may be one.
Sometimes what we see, read and hear about morality from adults and authority gures, including preachers, is confusing and contradictory. Too often we adults speak clearly about morality but live another way. Even the Bible can seem confusing sometimes if we don‘t have someone to teach us. That‘s why being in Sunday school or young adult Bible classes is so important.
But what you can do for yourself, without adults, is read the Ten Commandments (Book of Common Prayer, p. 350; Exod. 20; Deut. 5). They are clear and they sum up our commitment to God and to one another. The Ten Commandments will never go out of style and no one is ever above being responsible to them. The authority of the Ten Commandments is eternal. Someone once said, no one has ever destroyed the Ten Commandments, but the neglect of them has destroyed many persons.
The Ten Commandments are not a trap, they are a map. When we are honest with ourselves, with God and with one another that we have strayed, we are already back on the path to spiritual wholeness and personal integrity.
To all of us, I ask that you pray for our president and his family. They are good people with a hard truth to face. I ask that you pray also for our nation, all of its people and especially those in authority. And nally I ask of you, my brothers and sisters, that you would pray for me. Amen.