The Common Good
November-December 1998

The Abandonment of Trust

by Robert Jewett | November-December 1998

A biblical reflection on public lies.

President Clinton’s sordid behavior in the Lewinsky scandal has left many Christians in a quandary about the relevance of forgiveness in the political arena. We have been assured by Donald Shriver, author of An Ethic for our Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, that the country should now be willing to forgive the president. J. Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church where the Clintons attend and a distinguished authority in Christian ethics, contends that talk of political penalties is unbiblical: "King David did something that was much worse than anything that President Clinton is alleged to have done. And King David, if I read my Bible correctly, was not impeached."

So what ever happened to honor? This term belongs to an important complex of biblical ideas concerning public respect and recognition. Honor is achieved through the maintenance of integrity (Proverbs 8:1-21), speaking the truth without dissimulation: "Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil" (Matthew 5:37). Honorable persons defend the dignity of the weak (2 Corinthians 11:28-29), overlooking personal advantage for the sake of the larger community (Judges 5). The honorable are recognized as righteous as well as wise (Proverbs 5-6); they respect the community’s sense of decency (Philippians 4:8-9). When the community sets its trust in a leader who conforms to these standards, that person is said to be "honorable." There is a particular stress throughout the Bible on honoring parents, marital partners, and political leaders, with frequent advice about how such figures should behave so as to warrant being honored. The admonition in Romans 13:7 concerning respect for the government is particularly clear on the matter of warrant: Believers are to give "honor to whom honor is due."

So how should Christians in a modern democracy act when honor is no longer deserved? This is an issue of much greater public cogency than questions about whether the president should be forgiven. That adultery and prevarication can be forgiven is indisputable, for leaders as well as for common citizens. Whether repentance is genuine and restitution is adequate are matters between sinners and God. But forgivability is not a qualification for office. The real question is whether the public should continue to honor someone whose tenure in office has been marred by months of lying.

THE DISHONOR CAUSED by the president’s campaign of lies extends to every branch of our public and political system. The most serious damage has been done to the fourth estate of our public life, the news media, which has been blamed for a single-minded pursuit of the truth in all its sordidness, almost to the exclusion of the larger issues that should concern the country. By any measure, the level of cynicism about our public institutions has been deepened by these developments.

As a person who twice voted for Clinton, I believe there is no way to restore public trust in his leadership. Some of us may be able to overlook his "personal failure" but we will never believe him again, never respect and honor him as a person of integrity whose word is his bond. The integrity of our governmental system is now in jeopardy. Without "honor to whom honor is due," there is no possibility of maintaining a democratic system of government, because voluntary respect for its laws, ethos, and elected officials is essential. With a liar as our chief role model, which the president indisputably provides in our society, incalculable damage will be done to the honorable commitments that are the invisible glue that sustains a free and prosperous democracy.

Perhaps our ambivalence would be modified by imagining what would happen if our bankers and stock brokers and business executives followed Clinton’s example of self-serving dishonesty; if our teachers and scientists and doctors and law enforcement officials were led to abandon their ideal of commitment to the honest truth; if our journalists and clergy dropped their standards of truthful integrity. Nothing is more central to the biblical message than the belief that falsity is self-destructive and cannot endure. "Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment" (Proverbs 12:19). Our system can readily survive the departure of a brilliant political leader who has forfeited public trust. But we cannot survive the abandonment of trust itself.

ROBERT JEWETT is the author or editor of 14 books, including The Captain America Complex: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism and Paul the Apostle to America: Cultural Trends and Pauline Scholarship.

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