WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton was an eight-year-old boy, he used to dress himself up in a suit on Sundays and walk alone, Bible in hand, to Park Place Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Ark.
His parents weren't churchgoers, according to biographer David Maraniss, but young Bill considered himself a believer and felt he needed to go to church every week. His nanny told him that he might grow up to be a minister someday.
Today, President Clinton - faced with independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report - appears very much the fallen parishioner, caught in a web of sin and deception, begging forgiveness from his family, his colleagues, and the nation he governs.
"The president is in a crisis, there's no doubt," says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "He's facing a crisis in Congress, before the American people, and in the world. He's also facing a spiritual crisis, which is the most important issue of all."
The president has taken a journey toward public repentance - from his steely-eyed non-apology Aug. 17 for his affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky to his contrition-filled remarks to religious leaders at the White House last Friday.
Whether the American people will stand by the president, as Congress prepares for possible impeachment hearings, remains an open question. But this chapter in the four-year-old Starr investigation into a range of White House dealings has focused unprecedented public attention on the concepts of forgiveness and repentance, nearly universal concepts across the range of religious traditions, both Christian and non-Christian.
In a nation that prides itself on its religious foundations, Americans are asking themselves how they can square the president's private actions with his public duties, and whether even a sincere request for absolution is enough to save his presidency.
"The need to be forgiven and received again into a relationship or a family or a community is so universal," says Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It's so basically human. There isn't anybody who hasn't found himself in a situation where they needed to say, 'I'm really sorry I did that,' and hope that the people you've offended - in either a big way or a small way - will understand and not pounce on you."
Some clergy have raised the analogy of King David in the Bible, who carried on an affair with a married woman, then sent her husband off to battle to be killed. King David, of course, was not impeached, notes J. Philip Wogaman, pastor at United Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, where Clinton attends services with his family.
"The real point is [that] heads of state, no matter how high they are, are still in the human condition," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has recently counseled the first family and attended the White House's annual prayer breakfast last week.
"How do you get back from [sin]?" Mr. Jackson asks. "Through repentance and revival and a determination to get better. But this has to be very personal. [At the breakfast] you heard more of his soul and his will to serve than anything legal or political."
For other religionists, the apparent universality of Clinton's problem goes only so far. Most Americans don't engage in the pattern of adultery that Clinton appears to have had, and even if lying about adultery is common, lying in a legal proceeding is gravely serious, particularly for a president, they say.
Mr. Mohler, the Southern Baptist theologian, has called for Clinton's resignation, as have other leaders of Clinton's own denomination.
"An apology requires moral credibility, and the president has destroyed that moral credibility," he says. "Basically, he's saying to the American people, 'I lied to you, I lied repeatedly, I lied even most recently, but I am not lying now.' That just does not wash."
Among those invited to the breakfast - which Mohler was not - many pointed out that even a truly repentant sinner must still face the legal consequences of his or her actions. Many a death-row inmate has claimed a religious conversion and still been executed. A member of Congress, therefore, can forgive Clinton - and still vote to impeach.
Going back to the Bible, Professor Cox from Harvard finds the story of the adulterous woman to be apt under the circumstances. Jesus did not excuse the woman from her legal sanction, to be stoned to death. Instead, he turned to the stoners and declared that those without sin should cast the first stone. No one did. Jesus then told the woman to go and sin no more.
"That's a nice balance," says Cox, who does not believe Clinton should resign at this point.
Some religious leaders agree that Clinton should stick it out, but others are withholding judgment.
"Performance in public office doesn't cancel the other actions," says Virginia Harris, chairman of the board of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, which publishes this newspaper. "It's really two different issues here. He may be forgiven in the private sense of things, but the infringements of law that have been put forward need to be dealt with. A political process has been touched here."
Mrs. Harris, who attended the prayer breakfast, says that when she spoke to the president, he had tears in his eyes. The event "seemed to be as genuine as it could be," she says, calling the mood somber.
Other participants spoke of feeling God's presence there. "There was a holy hush that came over the room," says James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.