Faith & Reason: Disease in the noble and vital parts

Why did the citizens of the United States wait so long before turning on Bill Clinton? A sermon from 1729 by one of the Pilgrim Fathers offers the answer
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The Independent Culture
ON A fast day in October or November 1729, Jonathan Edwards, the New England Puritan and one of America's most charismatic preachers, addressed the civic dignitaries of Northampton, Massachusetts. His theme, preserved in his printed text, was "Sin and wickedness bring calamity and misery on a people".

One of the ways of judging whether a nation was wicked or not, said Edwards, was to examine the conduct of its rulers. "Public rulers, they represent the whole people, and if they countenance vice and wickedness, then may wickedness be said to prevail . . . When wickedness prevails amongst rulers, it argues a general corruption, because they [the people] follow example."

The American people acknowledged Bill Clinton's leadership abilities when they elected him president. Now it is those same leadership abilities which will lead to his downfall. After years of Republican pragmatism, he set a new moral tone, and provided an example for their children. Their worry now is that he will set a new moral tone and provide an example for their children.

So what has changed? Sexual inappropriateness has clouded Bill Clinton's image for years, stretching back to before his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate; and yet the American public has supported him steadily, willing him to shrug off each accusation of impropriety at it emerged. Can anybody really have believed the denial he made in January of an affair with "that woman"? The American public did, or seemed to - so much so that they were slow to react when he finally changed his story during the hearing last month. Years of accommodating a fallen leader can't be changed overnight, so we all thought that, maybe, yet again, Clinton had got away with it.

He hasn't. Economic commentators tie the change in mood to the Dow Jones tumble ("It went down faster than a White House intern," said one American comedian); but the real reason is subtler than that, and lies in the heart of the American psyche.

Americans are an almost unique combination of realism and aspiration. They know that they are not beautiful or perfect, and that beauty and perfection only truly exist at the movies. The Puritan roots that still underpin much of American Christianity, thanks to the influence of people like Edwards, remind believers that they are sinful and always will be sinful, saved only by the grace of God. Freed from the myths of royalty which beset the English (however recently invented, however undermined in the past few years), the Americans see their President as one of them, and therefore naturally beset by the same problems and temptations that they suffer. With central government having become so faceless in recent years, they are even a little proud of someone with the odd flaw or two.

But then comes the aspiration. Americans keep going to the movies - and such dreadful movies, too. Although sinful, they strive, as Christianity tells them they must, to be perfect. And because their president is a man of the people, he serves as an example of how far they, or if not they then their children, might get.

These are the reasons why the American public has continued to give Mr Clinton the benefit of the doubt; and why the e-mails I see from right- wing Christians in the south have held back, merely urging their correspondents to pray for the President. "Grant to the President of the United States, and to all in authority, wisdom, and strength to know and do thy will." The only shift in recent days has been the addition of Judge Kenneth Starr to the prayer list, "a brother who I believe to be a national hero and a warrior for Christ and his kingdom here on earth," writes one.

And this is why it has taken the American public several days to think what to do, now that there is no doubt. With his admission of "inappropriateness", Mr Clinton was trying to salvage a thread or two of that doubt, and, who knows, if Judge Starr's report hadn't followed up so quickly, he might have managed to cloud the issue, with his bombings and his bearhugs and his smiling eyes. But not when the details of what precisely constitutes inappropriate behaviour hits everybody's front porches. And not when the public finally realises that they were duped. At bottom, it's not the sex. It's not even that Clinton lied to them. The anger that is building is because he encouraged them to lie to themselves. Deep down, they knew, but they let it go, and so they are guilty, too.

Back to Edwards's sermon: "It is among a people as it is in the human body: then especially may a disease be said to prevail in the body when it has seized the more noble and vital parts, so that they don't well do their office. When it is so, the body will be generally diseased." Were Mr Clinton to stay, who knows how far the infection will spread into the body politic, with its symptoms of cynicism and self-interest, unfaithfulness and mendacity? Who is to say that the people's earlier indulgence and indifference were not signs that the disease had already taken hold?

On Wednesday, Mr Clinton asked the people for their forgiveness; but you don't forgive a disease. In a true sense, the American people are sick of Mr Clinton.