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Going Public With Prayer

By Jodie Morse/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- When he addressed the nation on Aug. 17, President Clinton insisted that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a private matter between "my wife, our daughter and our God." But it was only hours before the Rev. Jesse Jackson took to his TV bully pulpit to air his pastoral moments with the Clinton family, and only days before the President used Washington's annual prayer breakfast to proclaim himself a sinner. Last week word got out that the President had asked three clerics to monitor his recovery in weekly prayer sessions. The recruitment of so many spiritual counselors to bear witness to Clinton's soul searching led politicos and pastors alike to wonder whether the White House in its darkest hour had settled on a new strategy: playing the God card.

The three ministers of the moment--J. Philip Wogaman, Gordon MacDonald and Tony Campolo--are members of what was once a behind-the-scenes coterie of clergymen whose guidance Clinton has sought throughout his presidency. MacDonald and Campolo, both evangelical ministers, are spiritual celebrities, motivational speakers and authors of self-help books. Campolo, a sociology professor at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., describes himself as "politically liberal but theologically conservative" and has fought for justice for the urban poor and homosexuals. MacDonald, senior minister at interdenominational Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass., admitted 11 years ago to an adulterous affair and resigned his position. After extensive counseling, he returned to pastoring. He chronicles his recovery in Rebuilding Your Broken World, a book that Clinton told MacDonald he had recently read for the second time. Wogaman is minister of the Foundry United Methodist Church, not far from the White House, where the Clintons have regularly worshipped.

Campolo told TIME that he thought their counsel would be kept confidential and he would have "preferred" it that way; MacDonald said the same through a spokesman. But that did not stop MacDonald from announcing his expanded role in his Sunday sermon and Campolo from posting a statement on the Internet after a reporter called with questions. Nor did it deter the White House from confirming the information, although communications director Ann Lewis insists "my direction was that the pastoral counseling was private and personal and that we were not to release information." Wogaman gave only a short statement extolling the privacy of pastoral relationships.

Though they made no direct comments about the content of discussions with Clinton, critics charge they have abrogated the preacher-penitent privilege, a bond so sacred it can't be broken even by a subpoena. "It would serve Clinton's cause well if it were made public," says the Rev. Robert Schuller, who has long advised Clinton. "It's very difficult to buy the genuineness of the repentance if it comes after the person has been caught, but it's easy for me to buy the sincerity of tears in private to a pastor."

So far the point of this pastoral care seems to be to cry a very public river of tears. Though known as no-nonsense preachers, MacDonald and Campolo enjoy basking in the spotlight. Campolo has his own TV show and makes about 400 speeches a year. The publisher of MacDonald's Rebuilding Your Broken World sent out a press release last week touting the book and is planning a reprint. That their ministry may be grist for the White House spin machine is not lost on MacDonald and Campolo. In their public statements, both raised the possibility of their being "used." Says Campolo: "I still feel a genuine sincerity, but only time will tell."


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Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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