SECRETS, LIES & FORGIVENESS
IN OUR PUBLIC & PRIVATE LIVES

OCTOBER 18, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name. (Book Of Common Prayer)

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)

Take heed to yourselves; if your neighbor sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, "I repent," you must forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4)

The recent sex scandal in the White House has raised anew the question of secrets, lies and forgiveness in our public and private lives. The purpose of my sermon this morning is certainly not to rehash the details of the Starr Report, which we have all heard ad nauseam, or to try to convince you to change your opinion about what should or should not be done about it, but rather to reflect on some of the moral, ethical and religious issues which this unfortunate matter has brought to the fore. Perhaps there is something we can learn from all this that will benefit both our public and private lives as citizens, voters and people of faith. The behavior of our political leaders can become a mirror of what we need to become aware of in our culture and in ourselves.

We are all familiar with the legendary tale of George Washington as a young boy who chops down his father's favorite cherry tree and when asked about it by his father confesses, "I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet." His father then praises him for telling the truth. The legend about Washington shows the reverence of his character by his countrymen. George Washington was the first President of the United States, and a politician in the best sense of the word. He set a high standard in the minds of his countrymen for future political leaders to follow. How many have come close to measuring up to that standard, unrealistic though it may be? Not many to be sure.

In recent political memory President Eisenhower, through his Secretary of State, lied to the American people when it was first stated that Gary Power's U2 spy plane, which was shot down by the Russians, was a weather-research plane gone off course. It wasn't. During the Kennedy-Nixon debates JFK looked the American people in the eye and declared, "I do not have Addison's disease," which, of course, he did. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which LBJ pushed through Congress, and gave him carte blanche power to pursue the Vietnam War, was based on a manufactured political-military incident that never happened. President Nixon lied about the White House's involvement in the Watergate cover-up. "I am not a crook," he said, and then the audio-tapes of his supposedly private conversations proved otherwise.

The investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan-Bush years never proved that President Reagan lied about what he knew, but he had a conveniently poor memory about the whole thing. His advisors and subordinates, however, paid a heavy political price. What is interesting, is that the most moral President of this century, Jimmy Carter, who once had the gall to say during a political campaign, "I will never lie to the American people," (and for the most part he did not), was rejected after serving only one term of office. Being moral and honest is obviously not enough when it comes to being elected President of the United States. In fact, any politician who says they will never lie is suspect from the start. We all know, as presidential scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson says, that all politicians "tell the truth selectively", at best, or as Bill Clinton has been accused of doing, "telling the truth slowly", partially, never volunteering more than you have to. Isn't that right, Bill? Well, that all depends on what you mean by "is."

In none of the cases cited above was a President of the United States caught in a lie about a sexual affair in the White House. We now know after the fact that JFK had his share of sexual liaisons both in and out of the White House that would have put even Bill Clinton to shame. It is a known fact that President Kennedy had an affair with a woman linked to the Mafia, and another with an East German woman with possible links to the Communist regime. According to a recent T.V. documentary the latter liaison was close to being uncovered by a Congressional committee when JFK was assassinated. President Clinton's peccadilloes would pale in comparison.

If this whole messy business is only about sexual misbehavior in the White House, then I agree with what Garrison Keillor has said: "Never has so much been said by so many about so very little." It is true that the affair happened in the Oval Office, during working hours, and with a junior intern half his age, and though she was a willing participant in the affair, the President should have had the moral sense to draw the line and to say No before it started. However, he did finally end it, and were the matter not made the object of an investigation by a Special Prosecutor, the country would have known nothing about it and we all might have been better served if we had been spared the details. The President did admit that he had done wrong and at a prayer breakfast asked to be forgiven.

Is there anyone among us who would withhold forgiveness? In Matthew and Luke Jesus says we should offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us and repented, not once only, but up to seven times, or even seventy times seven. In other words, what we can forgive in others is a measure of what we can forgive in ourselves. Jimmy Carter was honest enough to admit that he had lust in his heart. Many others have acted on that lust and been drawn into illicit relationships. The sexual drive is a powerful force and not always easy to control, especially when mixed up with needs for love and affection and approbation, which people in public office and the helping professions often have to a significant extent. I like the line, "He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself." Yes, I know, forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences to sinful or wrong behavior. Jesus says in Luke to rebuke the sinner, but to forgive him if he truly repents. I would suggest to you, let us not be too quick to rebuke, or slow to forgive. Let justice and love, recompense and mercy be in balance. Let the punishment fit the crime. I would remind you that when the Speaker of the House lied to a Congressional Ethics Committee he was rebuked, fined, and forgiven, and allowed to continue in office. I would ask you to reflect. Have you ever lied about something important? Are there secrets in your private life that you would rather keep to yourself and God? Have you ever needed to ask for forgiveness? Are there some things better left unsaid and not revealed? Are people in public service permitted to have private lives or is everything now open to public scrutiny and investigation? Who of us could stand up under the examination of an investigator with unlimited powers to probe into our private lives and personal affairs?

These are important questions. It has been argued that the President should be treated just like everybody else. The fact of the matter is no private citizen would ever be compelled to testify to a grand jury when they themselves were the object of that investigation. If they did so they could take the 5th amendment and refuse to participate in their own self-incrimination. Moreover, were you to testify, that grand jury testimony could never be made public before a trial had taken place, nor would it be made public afterwards. Moreover, any conversations you might have had with your lawyer prior to a grand jury investigation, would be purely private and protected.

We now have a situation where future presidents may be reluctant to trust lawyers in the employ of the White House, or Secret Service body guards, because what is said in their presence, and what is observed by them, could be used in a future investigation for partisan political purposes. And I'm not just talking about sex. There are many other kinds of issues that could become the focus of a political investigation, such as fund raising, where White House lawyers, Secret Service agents, and Presidential secretaries and advisors, could be called on the carpet and compelled to testify against the very people they are supposed to serve. I suggest to you this is not a healthy precedent for future presidents to be faced with. If presidents cannot have private lives and personal secrets between themselves and their God, or their lawyers, or their advisors, or their bodyguards, or their wives, then our own right to a private life is threatened as well. We have become too much a voyeuristic society and culture addicted to consuming the sins and misdemeanors of the rich and famous, so much so that we have poisoned the political process. It has got to stop.

Sissela Bok, wife of the former President of Harvard, is a well known author and speaker on social ethical matters. She was once a speaker here at First Parish when we had the Fogg Lecture Series in the 1980s. Two of her most well known books are: (1) Lying: Moral Choice In Public and Private Life, and (2) Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. In her earlier book Sissela Bok offered some guidelines or ground rules for permissible lying within the context of a general principle of truthfulness, or what she calls "the principle of veracity." The principle of veracity favors truthfulness in general practice and in most situations, but recognizes that in rare instances lying may be justified or acceptable, a last resort or best choice under the circumstances.

There are, of course, the so-called "white lies" that preserve the equilibrium and humanness of social relationships. It has been noted that books on etiquette are written because the truth naked and unadorned can get you into trouble. You have to use diplomacy, courtesy and decorum and couch your language in pleasing prose and smooth discourse if you are to get that job promotion, seek the support of a potential adversary, win the hand of a future mate. Would it be possible to live in a society in which nobody ever lied about anything and still be civil to one another? Wouldn't some people be honest to the point of rudeness and take pleasure in hurting others with their frank and crude opinions? Let's be honest, but let's not overdo it. The question is, where do you draw the line?

Compulsive liars, warns Sissela Bok, usually fail to consider two things--the harm that lying does to the liar in terms of violating his or her own integrity and the "harm done to the general level of trust and social cooperation. Both are cumulative, both are hard to reverse." Some level of truthfulness is essential to human society. Without it social relations would collapse and society could not function. "Trust and integrity", she concludes, "are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity."

In her second book on Secrets Sissela Bok says that though lying and secrecy intertwine and overlap to some extent, they "differ...in one important respect....Whereas every lie stands in need of justification, all secrets do not. Secrecy may accompany the most innocent as well as the most lethal acts; it is needed for human survival, yet it enhances every form of abuse." "Every misdeed", she notes, "cloaks itself in secrecy," yet without private space, and a private life, no sense of self or integrity can be developed. The need for secrecy and a private life needs to be balanced between the public's right to know how their elected representatives conduct the business of government (which they do have a right to know) within certain limits, just as the government has a right to know that citizens are conducting themselves within the parameters of the law without prying into the intimate details of their personal and private lives. It is a balancing act that needs to be constantly re-examined and preserved.

The following cartoon once appeared in the New Yorker. The scene is a cocktail party with three men having a conversation. The caption reads: "But I see no harm in living a lie. That's where the Unitarians and I part company." I would like to think that the Unitarian Universalist church is one place you can come and be reasonably sure that you are in the midst of a community of people who cherish "truth known or to be known" and endeavor to live their lives based on that truth. We don't always succeed, and sometimes we may stretch the truth to suit our own wishes and needs, but the challenge to rise above our human failures and shortcomings is always there. We also do our best to respect the private thoughts and opinions of those who differ from us knowing that we need the same tolerance and respect in return. And like all human beings there are times when we stand in need of forgiveness from one another and from the God of our hearts. Amen.