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Faith and Life commentary: What influences public opinion?

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 06 Oct 1998 14:11:14

Faith and Life commentary: What influences public opinion?

Oct. 6, 1998        Contact: Tim Tanton*(615)742-5470*Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE:  A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Phil Wogaman is

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Phil Wogaman*

Many years from now, I suspect that the historians will still puzzle
over a strange fact about the current crisis surrounding President

Despite the sensational press accounts, the persistent efforts of a
special prosecutor, and a drumbeat of criticism and condemnation from
any number of critics of the president's behavior, his approval ratings
as president have continued to be very high. Month after month, since
the story broke last January, nearly two-thirds of the American people
have continued to support him as president. 

That fact was most dramatic last month, after the president's grand jury
testimony was broadcast for four straight hours on all the major TV
networks. What had widely been expected to start an avalanche of
disapproval had exactly the opposite effect, for his ratings went up and
not down in all the polls.

How are we to account for this?  What is particularly puzzling is the
apparent inability of numbers of usually influential commentators to
influence the public. Countless columnists and TV commentators -- not to
speak of politicians and assorted other kinds of pundits -- have heaped
judgment upon the president. Some have voiced unmodified condemnation,
as though there were simply no redeeming aspects of his character or
merits in his public service.

It was said for a time that the polls will change when more facts are
out, after the public has been educated, etc. Maybe so, but it does not
appear so. It has also been said that the public has lowered its moral
standards, willing now to tolerate behavior that would have been
considered outrageous a few years ago. Perhaps. But the polling data
also have clearly reflected public rejection of the misbehavior.

I believe two other considerations are governing public opinion, at
least at the moment.

First, there is a recognition that the stability of our basic governing
institutions is very important.  A forced change of presidents should be
reserved for truly extraordinary circumstances or truly egregious
offenses -- the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of which the Constitution
speaks. We should have a sense of proportion about this, weighing the
specific misbehaviors and the circumstances of misbehavior alongside the
positive gifts and vision of this president. President Clinton's
longtime critics and adversaries will not be impressed by that, but
others will be. In this, a majority of the American people may be
authentic conservatives -- that is, people who wish to conserve the good
in our institutions and practices and not to change things too abruptly
or radically.

Perhaps there is something even deeper at work. Most people are well
aware of the flaws in our humanity. We do not approve of sin. But its
appearance grieves us more than it surprises us. We know that the kinds
of things that the president is accused of doing -- including the sexual
misbehavior and attempts to conceal it -- are not so uncommon. That does
not make it right, but it helps us understand it. 

Those who stand in the Christian religious tradition, along with people
of many other faith communities, know something about the drama of
repentance, forgiveness and redemption. These are not easy terms of
reference, but they are very real. There is among us a strong instinct
to forgive, based above all on the fact that everybody needs
forgiveness. "Forgive us our sins,"  the Lord's Prayer says, "as we
forgive those who sin against us." We know we cannot approach God asking
forgiveness if we, flawed as we are, are not willing to forgive others.
Forgiveness is not cheap, but at some level it is necessary.
Forgiveness does not set consequences aside, but it gives us a better
perspective on the appropriateness of particular kinds of consequence.
And forgiveness sets the tone for moral recovery and growth.

In the current situation, my hunch is that the public has sensed the
things that matter most in this.  And it just could be that the
perception of ordinary people is setting the direction for the nation
with greater maturity than many of its opinion leaders.

# # # 

*Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington and a
seminary professor of Christian ethics, is the author of 13 books.
President Clinton and his family attend Foundry regularly. Wogaman is a
clergy member of the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Annual
(regional) Conference.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not
necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United
Methodist Church.

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