Tony, the sin doctor

As the Lewinsky scandal broke, Bill Clinton turned to a Baptist minister for political salvation.

Late one afternoon last month Tony Campolo received a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was the President of the United States. He was ringing from Moscow where he had gone to lecture Boris Yeltsin on the joys of the free market. But it was not economics on the President's mind.

It was late at night in Russia, and Bill Clinton was troubled. The full weight of the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken. In response he had made his televised admission of "inappropriate" behaviour. But, politically, it had not proved enough. The next day he was due, for the first time since his acknowledgement of sexual misconduct, to face the press.

His late-night vocabulary, however, was not that of the politician. "I need help. There are many sins in my life," he said to Campolo, a Baptist minister Clinton had known for more than five years because of the work of Campolo Ministries among the young urban poor.

"He used the word sins, he wasn't talking about inappropriate behaviour any more," Campolo today tells Michael Buerk in an exclusive interview in the first of a new series of The Choice on Radio 4. The President continued: "There are many sins in my life, and I need the strength to overcome them. I need to be connected to God... Would you be willing to help me?"

It took Campolo only a few seconds to decide. He has since had weeks to wonder whether he made the right decision - particularly as many right- wing Christians have now cut off funding to Campolo's work in the inner cities and among street children in one of the world's poorest countries, Haiti. Does he now worry that he has been used?

"Of course I do. There's not only the possibility but the probability that this is done in part to send a message to the nation," he says. And yet, in a way, that is appropriate. "In a sense sin was not only committed against Monica Lewinsky and against his family, but it was a sin that left the whole nation disappointed and you need to make confession to all of those that you have hurt. So... I guess I am being used." But he then points out that, as the Apostle Paul says, "some people come to the gospel out of strife... but I don't care so long as they are willing to hear the word of God and listen to wise counsel."

The key question, of course, is whether Clinton is sincere in that public contrition and whether he is prepared to listen to wise counsel when it is of a purely spiritual rather than a political nature.

Is Clinton sincere? "People say it's not sincere and that the only reason he's repenting is because he's got caught," says Campolo. There are only two kinds of sinners, he reckons: those who have been publicly exposed - and the rest of us.

Campolo is one of a team of three evangelical ministers acting as what the Americans call a "spiritual accountability" circle for the President. "Our job is not to say whether it is politically expedient. However, we do say: `We think you ought to do what's right whether it is politically expedient or not.' And I think that on 11 September he did just that."

That was the date on which Clinton attended a prayer breakfast at the White House where he confessed he had sinned and begged for forgiveness. He also announced that he was forming his "spiritual accountability" circle, which was to include Campolo, who was present at the meeting. Revealingly, Campolo tells Michael Buerk that this was Clinton' s "real confession".

He does not expand in today's programme, but in evangelical Christian circles it is claimed that the repentance speech delivered that morning was the one originally drawn up by Campolo and the others for Clinton's TV appearance. However, the fulsome admission of contrition was dropped at the insistence of the White House spin doctors in favour of the much- mocked statement about "inappropriateness".

Acting as pastor to Clinton is clearly a hazardous pilgrim's progress. Campolo had said that he would be "upset no end" if it turned out Clinton had committed adultery. So how did he feel when the truth came out? "All those who love the President - his wife, his daughter, his friends, are upset no end. We wanted to believe the best - and when the truth broke we were hurt," he said, acknowledging that there was some "confrontational stuff" in his counselling sessions with Clinton.

But in the end, he says, it is clear that "what grieves the President most is not what it has done to him, but what it's done to his daughter and what it's done to his wife and what it's done to his friends. He weeps over this."

None of which is a new experience for a man of the cloth. "Pastors do this all the time... not only do I find myself betrayed by many of the people I counsel and stake my life on, but I always have to remember that Jesus was betrayed by me," he said. "If I am only going to put my arms around people who are righteous, I will live a very, very lonely life. I do not back sin... but I love the sinner even as I weep over their sin."

Not everyone is so generous. Some 85 per cent of US evangelicals are Republicans. When Campolo made public his decision a significant number of those who finance his ministry announced they were withdrawing funding. Invitations to preach were withdrawn. He was surprised and hurt - not so much by the vehemence he encountered as by the willingness of Clinton's enemies to penalise the poor and the dispossessed to exact their revenge.

"I seldom sleep a night any more. I walk the floor, praying and saying: `Is this to mean that we have to cut back on feeding programmes and education to some of the neediest people on the planet?' "

His programme assists 80 schools in Haiti for "slave" children from families so poor that they give their children away. He constantly asks: "Why would anybody cut off support to desperate children simply because Tony Campolo may have done the wrong thing?"

He adds: "Self-doubt overtakes me at that point... Is it really worth it to see people hurt in Haiti because I'm trying to respond to somebody in the White House. But I must do what I must do - and weep over the pain that my decision may have brought to others and constantly be asking: Did I do the right thing?"

`The Choice' with Michael Buerk is on Radio 4 today at 9am

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice