This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.
While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]
Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.
Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.
We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.
Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.
We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.
Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.
[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/opinion/pope-francis-catholic-church-resign.html?rref=%2Fbyline%Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.