Can the American system of government survive if the highest office in the nation—occupying the most powerful position in the world—is held by a man guilty of immoral acts and accused of felony offenses?
This is the question haunting congressmen and other governmental officials in the wake of a voluminous report describing the pornographic activities of the president of the United States and, by his own admission, lies to cover up his immoral activities.
As the manuscript of the 445-page report and the president's lawyers' response to it appeared in newspapers and on the Internet, a national argument ensued. It highlighted a confused and divided people's struggle with conflicting values and definitions of good and evil, sin, sex, lying, obstruction of justice, perjury and abuse of power. How, they wondered, does all this relate to the intent of the Constitution, Congress and future of America?
Within days, reactions to the lurid revelations brought to a head a crisis concerning two foundational principles of the American system of rule of law.
Foundation of a Nation
Twin beliefs underlie 20th-century American superpower. The first is the universal rule of law in a structured legal framework enveloped by the Constitution.
The second is universal accountability of personal behavior. Such accountability is guided by standards enshrined through all levels of the American legal system in civil and criminal laws—standards of morality that are ultimately rooted in the Bible.
The founding fathers of the American republic laid both foundations more than two centuries ago.
Now we see the United States embroiled in a constitutional conflict over spiritual and moral issues—questions that evoke biblical images and metaphors.
As when George Washington prayed to God in the bitter cold of Valley Forge and Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the equality of blacks as a doctrine of Christ, the profound crisis of values at the center of the presidential controversy is based in the biblical teaching of good and evil, right and wrong. Spiritual issues of God and the Bible confront public and private behavior and the limits to presidential conduct.
What is sinful and lawful? What is illicit and illegal? What is repentance and contrition? What is forgivable, and what is criminal? What is appropriate mercy and judgment?
These are good questions, legal and practical, to be found throughout the Bible in the pages of America's legal history.
Should criminal presidential behavior, if proven, be forgiven without impeachment and conviction because the president is the most powerful man in the nation and the world? Or is it ultimately the integrity of the office that is most important, and must the man be removed to preserve a governmental system based on the universal rule of law?
Americans have always believed that fair is fair, that its citizens are equal before the law. In courthouses across the land, justice is depicted as a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword. Her blindfold is symbolic, signifying the equality of justice for all. The presumption is that facts will be weighed, good will be exonerated, and evil will be punished.
What are the implications for the American judicial system if some crimes are ignored—overruled in the court of public opinion? What would happen if men holding lesser offices were accused of perjuring themselves, obstructing justice and committing gross acts of immorality in the innermost sanctums of the hallowed halls of government? Can a government survive with a double standard that dismisses or imprisons military personnel for immoral and illegal actions similar to those to which their commander in chief has admitted?
Of Crime and Sin
God makes no distinction between sinful and criminal behavior in the Bible. Sin is a crime before God, and all biblical crime is a sin. Acts that the Bible calls sin are the basis for what the Western nations call crime. This is largely lost on today's legal profession and much of popular Christianity.
God's Word, the Bible, defines sin as "transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4, King James Version). The first five books of the Bible, written by Moses at God's direction, are called "the Law" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 24:4). These books form the foundation of the Old Testament, and they undergird the teaching of Jesus Christ.
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets," He said. "I did not come to destroy but to fulfill .... One jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven ...." (Matthew 5:17-19).
In the Bible, as is often the case in American history, sin is synonymous with criminal behavior. Murder, stealing, bearing false witness and lying under oath are some sins recognized as crimes in American law. Criminal law in many areas of the world has historically included adultery and sodomy. Under some state laws, adultery and sodomy are still considered criminal activity.
Federal officials place their hand on the Bible in swearing-in ceremonies, taking an oath before God to faithfully serve. They thereby ritualistically acknowledge the God of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth and judge of behavior. The early proponents of these traditions, the founding fathers, considered the Bible as the ultimate source of law, the principles of which applied to private and public behavior.
Though many would call it puritanical, naïve and irrelevant to the mores of the '90s, the founders of the American legal system saw biblical law as foundational to criminal and civil laws. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are engraved on the wall of the Supreme Court chamber in the nation's capital.
Standards for Leadership
Holders of high office were supposed to be above reproach. Just as sinful behavior was grounds for severe punishment within the community, the American public expected its leaders to hold to high standards, particularly when it came to basic truthfulness and upholding the dignity of their office. As in the Bible, the higher the office the higher the standard for public and private conduct.
God, with dramatic judgment, dealt with the leaders of Israel who committed sin and abused their positions of power.
God forbade Moses to enter the Promised Land for overstepping the authority God gave him. God allowed King David's infant son to die because of David's sins. Leaders of the New Testament church held to strict character requirements for service (see 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
Even the sin of idolatry was a state crime in Bible accounts. It was considered to be a matter for community involvement in recognition that evil is never ultimately self-contained. It affects everyone in contact with the criminal.
The apostle Paul wrote that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and a little leaven of sin "leavens the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6). Sin multiplies unless it is thwarted and contained.
Transgressions of the Ten Commandments, abuse of power by government officials, and the rule of law are all major themes of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was crucified after He repeatedly condemned the political and religious elite of His day for being "hypocrites." Jesus applied that term to community leaders who led public lives of prideful respectability and private lives of depravity.
Your Sin Will Find You Out
The Bible warns that you cannot fool God, and your sins "will find you out" (Numbers 32:23).
After months of denial, under the pressure of mounting evidence, the president of the United States admitted to "an inappropriate relationship" and that he had "misled" the American public with his previous denials. In a meeting with religious leaders, he admitted to sin in a speech sprinkled with illusions to Psalm 51, written by King David after his adultery with Bathsheba.
Yet simultaneously the president's battery of lawyers attacked the congressional report as inconsequential and excused the chief executive's sexual relationship and previous denials under oath as not illegal and unworthy of impeachment.
By wrapping himself in the Christian language of remorse, asserting that he had "repented" and had a "contrite heart," the president injected biblical issues onto center stage of the legal system. The Bible's universal themes of decency and governance, forgiveness and repentance became part of the national debate.
However, a newspaper columnist asked whether the president's statements of regret, apology and sin represented "acts of contrition or just an act." Only the president can answer that question.
Use of Scripture cuts many ways. The book of Hebrews tells us that "the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword" and "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
By denying an adulterous relationship for many months, and encouraging White House aides and other government officials to mislead the public, the president opened himself up to charges of cover-up and the abuse of power, some of the impeachable offenses that eventually drove President Richard Nixon from office.
The president chose the interesting example of David as a metaphor. King David had conspired to have Bathsheba's husband murdered to cover up his adultery. His was a horrible abuse of power with enormous personal and national consequences.
Although David repented and God spared his life, God told him that, although he had committed his sins in secret, his punishment would be open to the public (2 Samuel 12:10-12). His transgressions led to civil war, with an insurgency headed by one of his own sons. David and his kingdom suffered immeasurably as a result of his sins.
Truth or Consequences
Americans are profoundly shaken and divided over the significance of the challenge to their constitutional system and the stability of government precipitated by their president's actions. They and their elected officials must judge how they will handle the issues of sin and illegal behavior committed by the nation's highest elected official.
Although the American people were bystanders as the distasteful drama unfolded, when the report on the president's actions was released they "assumed a central and conceivably decisive role in the case," wrote New York Times political analyst R.W. Apple Jr.
In many ways the nation is on trial. Choices made will permanently affect the future of the country. Decisions may profoundly alter the nation two centuries into its great experiment in democracy.
Since the president took office in 1992, the majority of American voters for the first time in history have said, in repeated opinion polls, that a president's personal character is not important. Many people identify with the president and his flaws, although others find his behavior distasteful and immoral. Some manage to simultaneously hold both views. One man excused his behavior by commenting, "He didn't do anything any other man wouldn't have done."
Parents, overwhelmed by the grossly lurid details, have decided to lie to their children. The Washington Post described a mother of three who, when faced with her children's questions about the president, told some untruths of her own. "It's sort of like Santa Claus," she said. "I've never wanted to lie to my kids, but then you've got certain things where you have to."
Painful Choices Ahead
Congressmen who will decide on the appropriate presidential punishment are sensitive to their constituents back in their home states. Many of their constituents are divided, ambivalent and unhappy at the choices to be made.
If the citizens and the Congress do not impeach the president and allow him to remain untried and serve out the rest of his term, what will be the consequences? As some observers point out, one result will be the acceptance of an imperial presidency that is unaccountable for its behavior, with a ruler not subject to the laws of the land that apply to other citizens. This would amount to tacit abandonment of the founding fathers' doctrine that no one, even the president, is above the universal rule of law.
The Roman republic took this course with the establishment of a Caesar as a ruler who no longer had to answer to the Roman Senate. History, even in recent decades, offers many examples of the danger of leaders who felt they were above the rule of law.
Can the American System Survive?
When the Constitution was established 210 years ago, it began what is often called the "great experiment" in democracy. It is the longest-running such test in history, and its founders realized that its success depended on its moral and spiritual foundations.
As John Adams, the second president of the United States, recognized that a government needs the support of a moral citizenry: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
"... The Word of the Lord endures forever," says the Bible (1 Peter 1:25). Time will tell how long the American people, and the Constitution, will endure their sins and the sins of their leaders. GN