The American century is ending on a bad note. In the last two presidential elections, we knew exactly what we were doing: electing a whiz kid at whose center there was (and is) a moral black hole. Sixty percent of the voters who elected him said that he was not honest. What mattered was competence, not character. Since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, a multitude of reasons have been given for everyone’s amused detachment. The economy is rolling along. There are no foreign quarrels. Why not sit back and enjoy the Krakatoa of bimbo eruptions? As Bill Clinton’s approval rating shot upward, one recalled Shakespeare’s words about how “much wealth and peace” have strange effects on the body politic.
Why are we not outraged by Clinton’s sexual behavior? The buzz word that appears in every explanation is “consensual.” Two adults performed a consensual act (read: sodomy) next to the Oval Office. So, it’s their private business. But anyone who has worked for a large corporation (or served in the military) knows that a CEO caught having oral sex with a 21-year-old employee in the executive suite would be bounced out the door the next day. Apart from its gross immorality, the CEO’s act would be considered so stupid and reckless as to require no discussion about his fitness to lead.
Or would it? Now that the baby boomers are taking charge, the rules are changing quickly. Sexual anarchy, the norm on campus since the late ’60s, has spread everywhere else. The aging boomer generation is its carrier.
There has always been a fair amount of fooling around among consenting adults. But consider the reaction of one young journalist to the Clinton scandal: “Lewinsky’s sexual past is . . . compared to most of my female friends . . . rather bland. Among my contemporaries, it isn’t all that shocking to sleep with three different partners on a weekend, not all of the opposite sex. . . . Sleeping with an older man, even a married one, is considered a triumphant rite of passage.”
The Wall Street Journal got it exactly right when it opined that the reason both the media and public opinion are so remorselessly unforgiving of Ken Starr is that the special prosecutor seems to be judging an entire generation. That generation, untempered by war and awash in unprecedented affluence, bristles at the idea of an objective moral order that is not subject to whim and manipulation. The boomers were born to be pleased. They were raised with a sense of immunity to the ordinary dangers of life. They don’t want to hear from anybody—parents, priests, special prosecutors—about how to behave. This is the legacy of five decades of economic prosperity such as has not been experienced by any other people on earth. It was almost inevitable that the first president to be coughed up by that generation would not be bothered by any truths that do not lend themselves to political or therapeutic use. It is not surprising that the first therapeutic presidency turned into the pornographic presidency.
A curious thing happens when a generation tries to free itself from religious and moral norms. The human person is structured to seek out truths. When it decides to shuck off the demanding old ones, it immediately looks for substitutes. In the case of the boomers, this meant a search for new authority figures: One example is the late Joseph Campbell, who told them to “follow their bliss.” What Campbell did not explain is what happens when your bliss collides head on with somebody else’s bliss.
Campbell will do as well as anyone as a representative of the cultural elite that has mentored the boomers’ relentless pursuit of self-gratification. That millions tuned in to PBS to watch a Protestant seminary dropout (Bill Moyers) interview a lapsed Catholic (Campbell) about the pursuit of fuzzy inner feelings tells us something about post-Christian America. Campbell advised us to get rid of traditional religious beliefs and substitute for them a “force.” What exactly is this “force” and where does it come from? Looking for an answer in Campbell’s writing, you find a bit of Hindu myth here, a snippet of Jungian psychology there. In short, Campbell was peddling a cheap transcendence that is fun, makes no demands, and allows you to get on with your bliss. The boomers lap it up, and it also works at prayer breakfasts. Clinton, whose presidency is full of God-talk, is our leading practitioner of no-cost therapeutic religiosity.
What Campbell did not mention to Moyers (we now know) is that the pursuit of his own bliss at one point involved a liaison with the wife of his best friend, the novelist John Steinbeck, who never got over it. Here we get to the crux of the matter. What drives the boomers’ attitude toward everything—politics, culture, family—is their approval of recreational sex. Even married boomers who don’t mind being faithful to their spouse think that the sexual revolution is permanent and ought not to be reversed. The first boomer president naturally translated these attitudes into policy, filling his administration with sexual ideologues like Dick Wirthlin and Jocelyn Elders, who want to spend billions teaching our children and the Third World that the human person is a rutting animal.
But what, we are asked, is the bottom line on sexual immorality in high places? Does it really matter what an elected official does in private? I was asked these questions by an editor of a national magazine as Hurricane Monica gathered force last winter. In reply, I faxed him a few lines from the great Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper, who died recently at age 93. Here is what one of the last truly great thinkers had to say about the effects of sexual immorality on the human person:
Since we nowadays think that all a man needs for acquisition of truth is to exert his brain more or less vigorously, and since we consider an ascetic approach to knowledge hardly sensible, we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. Thomas says that unchastity’s first-born daughter is blindness of spirit. . . [A]n impure, selfishly corrupted will-to-pleasure destroys both resoluteness of spirit and the ability of the psyche to listen in silent attention to the language of reality.
In other words, what we do with our sex organs in private has more to do with who and what we are than we are likely to suppose.
Part of the problem is our culture’s attitude toward the body. Most people in my generation are sexual gnostics. What do I mean by this? They think of the body as a mere shell or appendage. They imagine that their real self is somewhere inside the body, the proverbial ghost inside the machine, and that what they do with their bodies doesn’t make any difference. The body is a thing to be manipulated; it has no connection whatever with our personhood. This gnostic separation of spirit and flesh is so basic to our contraceptive culture that we don’t even notice it. Yet it is going to have to be reversed if we don’t want to suffer the fate of past cultures that also went on a spree of sterilized sex.
Does that sound like an exaggeration? Christopher Dawson writes that a major cause of the breakdown of classical culture was its severance of sex from marriage: “Late marriages and small families became the rule, and men satisfied their sexual instincts by homosexuality or by relations with loose women. This aversion to marriage and the deliberate restriction of the family by the practice of infanticide and abortion were undoubtedly the main cause of the decline of ancient Greece.” Substitute the pill for infanticide and you have a good description of any middle class neighborhood in New York or Los Angeles.
Like the leisured classes of fourth century Greece, our generation has driven a wedge between sex and babies, between sex and commitment, between sex and personhood. We have put sex in an airtight compartment, trying to filch the pleasure that belongs to the act while getting rid of all the rest. But that cannot be done with impunity. Look at the social cost of 30 years of polymorphous sex. It used to be that one out of 20 children was born out of wedlock. Now it’s one out of three. Everyone agrees that the main cause of our social pathologies is not race or poverty but kids growing up in single-parent homes—specifically young boys growing up without a positive male role model. There are whole neighborhoods in this country where there are no fathers. Consider the 35 sexually transmitted diseases that continue to spread like wildfire. Or all the walking wounded (especially women), casualties of a sexual revolution that, let’s face it, has been pig heaven for men.
Which brings us back to the current leader of the free world. One hesitates to mention Pope John Paul II and President Clinton in the same sentence. One man, apart from his manifest holiness, is the sole surviving grown-up on the world stage, the only leader today who puts one in mind of the generation of Churchill and de Gaulle. Then there is the incredible shrinking president who has turned an office with enormous symbolic resonance for the American people into a remake of Animal House.
In his masterpiece, Love and Responsibility, the pope talks about the deeply corrupting effect of using another person as a means to an end, an object of gratification. I write this on the day of the release of the Starr report, which makes it glaringly clear that this is what Clinton did with a desperate 21-year-old girl. In a few decades I wager that the decline of radical feminism will be charted from the image of its chief poster boy puffing a cigar in the Oval Office after having just been sexually serviced by a compliant female employee.
Whatever Clinton’s fate, there is no question that his presidency has been a disaster for the only institution that matters: the family. The pope, a good sociologist, writes, “It is not an exaggeration to affirm that the life of nations ‘passes’ through the family and is based on the fourth commandment of the Decalogue.” Destroy the family and you destroy the culture. Despite the pro-family rhetoric, the Clinton administration’s only abiding allegiance has been to the cultural left and its baggage of sexual attitudes. (The game plan: Fake right, run left.) When his advisor, Dick Morris, was caught doing weird things with a call girl, the response was that 85 percent of American husbands cheat on their wives. In Morris’s elitist world, that statistic may actually be true. The problem is that these people fervently believe that they know what is good for the rest of us.
Don’t forget that we voted for a couple and not just candidate Bill. It is almost always the case with a political couple that the wife, and not the husband, is the ferocious ideologue. (Congressman Richard Nixon discovered this when dealing with Mr. and Mrs. Alger Hiss.) Here is a woman who clearly views her marriage as a vehicle for spreading agendas learned at Wellesley and Yale Law School. It is probably impossible for her to consider matrimony as anything other than a mutual accommodation of two independent egos for ulterior ends. Her book about how it takes a government bureaucracy—excuse me, a village—to raise a child makes it obvious that Hillary Clinton has no clue about the most important factor in a child’s life: the unconditional mutual love of the parents.
Like the hedgehog in the fable, political activists of Bill and Hillary’s generation know one important thing: Before you engineer a social reality, you engineer the language.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Just so. Recall the “family” float in the Clinton inaugural parade: a lesbian couple with a test tube baby, two gay men with their adopted charge, and a traditional couple. Once a political elite begins to manipulate the language in this manner, you know that trouble is ahead. A society that marginalizes the traditional family, demoting it to one of many sexual options, is simply canceling its own future.
The affluent elite that swept into Washington along with Bill and Hillary is yet another of G.K. Chesterton’s prophecies come true. The next great heresy, he wrote in 1926, “is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially sexual morality.” And it would come not from a few lingering socialists, but from privileged elites “resolved to enjoy themselves at last, with neither Popery nor Puritanism nor Socialism to hold them back.”
Popery is certainly the last thing to bother the Clintons. At that famous prayer breakfast a few years back, Bill and Hillary politely endured Mother Theresa, but otherwise they have thumbed their noses at Catholics. And for good reason. No slouches when it comes to political calculation, they know that lax Catholics now simply flop along with everyone else on issues like abortion. There was no need even to appoint a northern Catholic to the Cabinet, an unheard of state of affairs in previous Democratic administrations. If the Catholic laity are supposed to reevangelize the culture, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, it has so far totally flunked the test.
We have all, in the final analysis, flunked the test. Janet Smith, Ph.D., who is almost single-handedly reintroducing American Catholics to the profound truth of the Church’s teachings about sexuality, apologizes to young audiences for the mess left by her generation. That mess includes a president who will be remembered mainly for a single tawdry episode, just as all that French school boys know about one of their politicians a few generations back is that he died in office while having sex with a courtesan.
At the close of the millennium, the only edifying place to which we may direct our attention is Rome, not Washington. Anyone who has observed this pontificate knows that John Paul II has focused his pastoral mission on young people and families—in other words, on the future. He is trying to teach a truth about the human person—that we are not autonomous units bouncing off one another in the pursuit of pleasure. Maybe the Clinton scandal will help his message to get through on the deeper frequencies.