Fearful Baptist Falls for Sex, Burns for Sin

The Monica interview, like Monica Lewinsky herself, has now been much chewed over and sits among us like an old doggy bone, unraveling, splintering while everyone waits for someone else to take it off the living room rug. Bear with me for a little more nibbling. I was interested in the President’s statement to her, “That would be wrong,” when speaking of intercourse. He was not putting her off for political reasons. He was not saving her for a riper moment. Here is the heart of the matter. That remark, under what all would agree must have been intense sexual pressure, reveals that we have all, his enemies as well as his sympathizers, misunderstood the President. He is not a man without moral struggle, a man whose louche behavior is a product of indifference to God’s law or human convention.

When we look at Monica reporting on her dance of flirtation, a little of this, a little of that, we see a man tempted by the oldest demons in the world, ones he told her have been at him for years. He tells her he has deceived and lied and is now trying to be good. These are not the words of an immoralist or a hedonist or a man wrapping himself in the sexual revolution. They were not said to seduce or to woo. He had already accomplished that. We should take them at face value. In fact, Bill Clinton is the very epitome of the 1950′s. He squirms in the arms of desire and chastises himself when he fails and succumbs to temptation. He has a very clear idea of what his God expects of him, and he tries but he fails. This Bill Clinton is very much the product of a Baptist upbringing. He is not a sophisticate, a moral relativist, a cad without remorse.

He may raise funds from liberal New Yorkers, but he is certainly not one. We in this town are not so involved in issues of sin and repentance. We are not guilty in the eyes of our Lord in quite the same way or with the same literal images of the fiery damnation that waits. We have unconscious guilt, we have regrets, we erode the natural joy of our souls with unceasing doubt and recrimination. But without the voice of the preacher in our ears, without hell waiting for us, we develop a different sensibility. We don’t so much drop to our knees in prayer as whine at the universe or tell all to our therapists. Of course we know right from wrong. We sometimes do one or the other, but the feel and the smell and the weight of the torment when we betray ourselves is very different. We are more tolerant than others of things in the mind and believe less in literal salvation and more in struggling on and on. Guilty New Yorkers grow impotent at the crucial moment or break out in rashes or get bleeding ulcers. They do not tell their partners, “That would be wrong.” It’s a difference of style but is well worth considering.

The President is a Southern Baptist and he can feel the Devil’s hand on his private parts, while we grow old wondering what matters and who cares, and search for happiness with oftentimes equally uncertain results. Mr. Clinton has more in common with the stern House Managers than he does with us. Imagine the many times he heard from the pulpit that hell and damnation wait for the sinner. Imagine the attitude toward sex that rose from those preachers, those teachers, that community. Only reproductive sex was all right, and even that wasn’t to be spoken of in polite society. Desire, masturbation, lust were all evils, human failings, sins. This sense of sin with a capital S pervades the Baptist position and certainly casts human behavior in a sharp light: This is wrong, this is right. When Jimmy Carter told us that he lusted in his heart, he was speaking out of that tradition.

The particular split President Clinton shows between wife and girlfriend, between raw sexuality and the rest of his life, is not so strange when one thinks of its origins. The sinfulness of sex is a religious theme undiluted by Freud, undiluted by the Enlightenment with its anthropology and its moral relativism. It takes on an aura of cruel Puritan repression. “Don’t” is the operative word, and it is hard for the normally lusty to live with. Something gets distorted in the process. Sin and desire get confused. We are now so well trained not to speak critically of other people’s religious choices that we overlooked the role of this particular religion in Bill Clinton and misunderstood his compulsive womanizing as weakness when it was in fact an expression of religious anguish. When Monica says, “Satan, get thee behind me,” she wants to know if the C.E.O. Demon thinks she looks fat. For Mr. Clinton, the position of Satan is no mere metaphor.

I am not attacking Baptists here. I am simply observing that every culture responds to its unruly sexual impulses in its own way. The hellfire solution does, however, create its own problems. It offers little by way of positive sex education. It demands abstinence. It speaks of sinners and devils that tempt. It creates an environment where sexual problems breed like cockroaches in our urban panties. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. and his transgressions. It must have racked his soul, too. Think of the trashy Paula Jones and the others whose power to arouse the President must have come right from the heart of the sin problem, the need to tempt, the need to fall, the need to be punished for one’s transgressions. If Mr. Clinton told Ms. Lewinsky that he had been struggling with lies and deceit all his life, he meant it. He was caught in the sin-and-redemption game. He could not cleanse himself of guilt. He stopped short of intercourse because of his fear of the hereafter, because he was struggling. It is not nice or reasonable to go around psychoanalyzing public figures, but it is clear that this President was not a happy philanderer or a no-good exploiter of young bodies. Something else, a bigger and more universally meaningful American drama, was going on.

When I watched attractive Monica, I saw that she was caught by her own immorality. She imagined neither the feelings of others nor the consequences for the public. Her absence of sexual guilt was in stark contrast to the President’s. Monica is Self run rampant, desire and sexuality given free rein and clothed in teenage language of love and crush. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, gives us Crime and Punishment, American version. Baptist religion comes down so hard on the individual sexual urge and in such a way that the President can go to Oxford and Yale, read the French philosophers and go to the cinema instead of the movies, and still remain the little boy the Devil wants for his own. This is not fun. Not for him, at any rate.