On the Church and Society
November 14, 2005
Openness to philosophical debate remains a formidable challenge within so-called open-minded academia. That goes for history, politics, economics, theology, and so many other disciplines. And this challenge was on display during the eleventh presidential conference held at Hofstra University on Long Island from November 10-12.
The conference was titled "William Jefferson Clinton: The 'New Democrat' from Hope." President Clinton stirred considerable debate during his White House years, so it should have been easy to bring together varying points of view.
Hofstra's presidential gatherings always are impressive affairs, particularly excelling at bringing together supporters of each White House. For more recent administrations, these events turn out to be part alumni reunion. That's fine, but usually a few critics are included.
That was the case, for example, with the 1993 conference on Ronald Reagan's presidency. In addition to many members of the Reagan White House, there were some lefty academic critics and political opponents as well, like former House Speaker Jim Wright and Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign manager Bob Beckel.
At the Clinton conference, there was discussion between Democrats and generally friendly academics, along with a few hard-left cranks who saw Clinton as too conservative. But no room apparently existed at a three-day conference with more than 40 different panels for conservative critics. While obviously unable to attend all sessions, I heard no conservative dissent over three days, and the conference agenda failed to include even one prominent conservative voice from the time. (One-time conservative, now liberal Arianna Huffington does not count.)
On a panel dealing with Clinton's highly controversial and failed attempt at socialized medicine, for example, no assessment was offered from a free market perspective, which also was lacking during sessions on the domestic economy and antitrust regulation.
The toughest assessment I heard was an amusing presentation by John S. Watterson, a history professor at James Madison University, about how Clinton cheated at golf.
During a panel on "The Cultural Divide," hostility towards social conservatives reigned. Two speakers essentially painted all Christian conservatives with the harsh brush of being paranoid extremists.
David Cohen, a political science professor from the University of Akron, blamed disenchantment with Hillary Clinton on the Christian Right detesting mothers with careers. John Wells, from Young Harris College, spoke of American Protestantism becoming more political in the late 1970s and 1980s, ignoring the liberal Protestant social gospel movement that started earlier in the twentieth century. Wells also failed to mention why so many conservative Christians felt compelled to become politically active due to government's assault on their fundamental values.
Eric Alterman, media columnist for "The Nation," declared that religious conservatives "value hypocrisy" and only "pretend to live moral lives." Interestingly, Alterman could have turned to Bill Clinton's autobiography for clarification on sin and human nature. Clinton declared: "In 1955, I had absorbed enough of my church's teachings to know I was a sinner and to want Jesus to save me." Alterman ignores that Christianity teaches all are sinners. That does not excuse sin, but recognizes the need for forgiveness, redemption and to do our best to, as Jesus instructed, "go and sin no more." (John 8:11)
The attacks on conservative Christians ironically revealed the panelists as painful caricatures of liberal, secular elitists.
Of course, Clinton himself has engaged in character assassination of Christian conservatives. Again, he wrote in his autobiography: "I understood why the people who equated political, economic and social conservatism with God's will hated me. I wanted an America of shared benefits, shared responsibilities, and equal participation in a democratic community." Note the rather adroit slap at his opponents coupled with self-aggrandizement.
At the conference, there was much wrangling among those on the left over what Clinton's legacy was, sprinkled with overt disgust with all things conservative. So, in a real sense, this Clinton presidential conference was rather fittingly Clintonian.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating