Why America's Religious Right Finds Clinton Intolerable

In some ways, he's too close to being one of their own

FOR many months, like a lot of other observers of American politics, I've pondered the public battering of Bill Clinton. Why is this particular president so bitterly hated, so relentlessly savaged?

I don't hold with those who say there's nothing to explain, that it goes with the territory of being president. I'm old enough to have paid attention to eight presidents before Mr. Clinton, and I've seen nothing like this. Some mention President Nixon, but Nixon-hating wasn't like this Clinton-hating. A president whose approach to the world entails making up enemies lists is asking for enemies. But Clinton hates conflict and manifestly wants everyone to love one another. And there is no unpopular war now tearing the country apart.

Nor do I think that Clinton's political blunders or moral shortcomings suffice to explain the assault on his leadership. Clinton has failings, but it is far from clear that the balance between his virtues and his faults is objectively worse than, say, President Reagan's. And while most of the public chose to disregard Reagan's quite evident weaknesses, Clinton's are constantly magnified (as with the Whitewater affair's unprecedented ratio of smoke to fire) or even invented (as with the nonmurder of Vincent Foster).

A small part of Clinton's problem may be that he's a Democrat in an office that some on the right have become accustomed to regarding as their own preserve. The bumper sticker ``Bush lost - get over it'' addresses this sore-loser phenomenon.

Then there is the particular nature of the opposition. Liberals think we should all get along, that niceness is the greatest public virtue - and they make lousy haters. Bible-belt conservatives choose righteous over nice any day, because their cosmos is divided between the godly and the un-. Hating the ungodly is not a moral lapse, but an obligation; part of the job description.

What makes Clinton so intolerable to Bible-belt conservatives is that he is a member of their ``tribe.'' His voice and manner are more those of the Baptist preacher than of a mainstream politician. In his town meetings, where he reached out to people like a pastor ministering to his flock, he promised - or threatened - to tap into a powerful source of cultural energy not usually harnessed by an American president.

This energy lies close to the heart of America, for although the religious right is but a minority, it is the guardian of a core part of the underlying structure of the American moral order. That Protestant tradition defines where authority resides and how it is to be used, how we are to deal with matters of right and wrong, and how freedom and responsibility are to be reconciled. A political leader who can combine the powers of office with these deeper springs of cultural energy might wield great influence.

Any challenge to this moral configuration would be opposed, but an American president who might be able to put an agenda of cultural transformation to the music of traditional hymns would be particularly threatening. And Bill Clinton suggested early on a very different emotional configuration from that of the traditionalists.

Where a Jerry Falwell assumes the posture of the authoritative father, Clinton's role upon taking office was that of the caring brother. ``I'll tell you what to do'' was supplanted by ``Let me help you.'' Questioning Clinton's ``patriotism'' (recall that patri means father) was also a way of saying that he was not qualified to be a real leader because he refused to act like a father.

Whereas the traditional Protestant cosmology is an order of exclusion - one divided between the saved and the damned - Clinton's approach to his flock was resolutely inclusive. Whatever else it was, Clinton's gesture to accept gays in the military was a signal that the division between the favored and the rejected was not central to his concept of his ``ministry'' or to his view of the American social order.

The moral order of the religious right is patriarchal, from God the Father to the organization of the family. Bill and Hillary's more egalitarian partnership was seen as a threat to that order. The response to that threat was to impugn Bill's masculinity, to depict the increase in Hillary's power beyond the traditional wife's role as diminishing the president. ``Impeach Hillary'' bumper stickers were a way of accusing him of not being man enough to wear the pants in his family. For the defenders of the traditional moral structure, it was urgently necessary that the moral authority of this incoming president be destroyed, and they have pursued this goal ceaselessly. Although Clinton's moral shortcomings made him vulnerable, it was really his potential moral strengths that evoked such hostility.

Had the right not succeeded in cutting Clinton down, had the moral credibility of his voice not been undermined, Bill Clinton might have effected a spiritual shift in American society more fundamental than a shift in politics alone. It was this shift, I believe, that the traditionalists of the religious right were determined to prevent.

They appear to have succeeded.

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