Whitewatergate

What’s the Big Surprise?

It rings of old times for me: Every day’s news programs tell of shredded documents, special prosecutors, subpoenas, resignations of White House officials. Reporters have called me asking about parallels between Whitewater and the Watergate scandal 20 years ago. The press are in a feeding frenzy.

But the most astonishing thing about the Whitewater incident is that we’re so astonished by it. Our reaction tells us more about ourselves than about the Clinton White House.

The fact that we are still surprised by corruption in high office reveals us to be incurable romantics. It shows how far we’ve been seduced by the greatest myth of the twentieth century: that at root human nature is good. Every time another scandal breaks—the Savings and Loan debacle, the Iran-Contra scandal, and now Whitewatergate—we wring our hands and wonder how the mighty have fallen.

We are shocked, shocked, to find corruption in the corridors of power.

As Christians we should not be so naive. The founders of our nation were considerably more tough-minded. They understood the profound biblical truth that human beings are sinners—that given free rein we are more likely to go wrong than to do right. That’s why the American founders established a balance of powers—a network of lines of accountability designed to keep a check on any one person or group in government.

That’s also why the founders insisted on a limited government—so there would be a balance of powers in society as well. The power of government is balanced by that of other social structures: family, church, business, and voluntary associations—what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons.” These build an informal network of lines of accountability for all of us.

But in modern times the idea of limits and restraints has fallen out of favor. Beginning in the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals rejected the biblical teaching on sin in favor of unbridled optimism. Restraints were thrown off, social authority was bucked, moral teachings were debunked.

Just get rid of those archaic religious rules and customs, secularists said, and natural human goodness would flower.

Well, something has certainly flowered in American politics but it isn’t human goodness. It smells more like the stinkweed of self-interest and corruption. And modern secularists—who brought us to this point—are wringing their hands in horror.

But should we be surprised? Should we be shocked that a governor from a small state known for cronyism apparently got too close to some sweetheart deals? Should we be horrified that White House aides protected their president a little too zealously? That’s one temptation I understand all too well myself.

So go ahead—have an investigation, clean up the mess. But let’s get over our shock and learn the deeper lesson. The romantics who want us to believe in human goodness, the debunkers who want to break free from the little platoons and their lines of accountability in society—they are wrong.

Today we desperately need to devote ourselves to rebuilding the walls that were torn down—the walls of moral tradition and social obligation that protect us, most of all, from ourselves.


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