It was to be expected that segments of the press, both secular and religious, would seek to identify religious events and trends that contributed to the tragedy of Watergate. This falls within the function of a free press. To the surprise of no one, some journalists took the way of the easy answer. Typical of this was the assigning of major responsibility to what is variously called Personal Pietism, the American Style of Religion, and White House Religion.

At first the liberal religious press traced the scandals to individual pietistic conditioning. This is, of course, shorthand for personal and public evangelism that presses for personal conversions, personal commitments to Christ. The assertion is made that this emphasis leads inevitably to privatistic understandings of religious faith, and to blindness to corporate or systemic evil.

Lying behind much of this allegation is the implication, frequently left unexpressed, that the East Wing religious services, and President Nixon’s personal acquaintance with conservative-evangelical ministers, actually led to Watergate. What is lacking, to date at least, is any clear evidence that such men as Messrs. Dean, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, or Magruder were regular attenders at such services. More difficult to establish would be any contention that such men were interested in what was said there.

It is easy to allege that the East Room services produced a “climate” in which illegal and unprincipled conduct followed as a matter of course. The challenge lies in trying to produce any solid supporting evidence.

Then the testimony of Jeb Stuart Magruder before the Senate Watergate Committee compelled a shift of emphasis, particularly upon the part of the established religious press. Mr. Magruder suggested that he drew inspiration for some of his conduct from the behavior of his former professor of ethics at Williams College, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

This brought into prominence the sacred motif of “situation” ethics and drew immediate fire from editorialists of the more liberal religious organs. This is not the place to decide whether Magruder was justified in what he said about Dr. Coffin. What is worthy of note is that the line of attack now shifted to become as follows: Those accused of wrongdoing in the Watergate affair had, because of their pietistic conditioning, developed “a new kind of situation ethics.”

Presumably this new brand of situationism was a deterioration or betrayal of the (good) older form articulated by Joseph Fletcher, Bishop Robinson, and others. We are not told precisely what new factors have been introduced. We may surmise that the reply would be that the older situationism was socially sensitive and group-welfare controlled, while the newer form is privatistic.

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The lead editorial in the May 30 Christian Century declared that the “new situation ethic rests its decisions upon such questions as: Was anyone killed? Was anyone robbed? Was anyone hurt?” The so-called love ethic appeals to the same sort of pragmatic considerations. On these bases, the theft and publication of the Pentagon Papers could no doubt be justified.

It helps little to say that the results at Watergate differed from those issuing from the older situational criteria. Loving objectives were sought and obtained—the reelection of the President, the protection of his peace of mind. A greater good was secured by the defeat of a candidate felt to possess inferior qualifications for the office. The point is that the apparent principals in the Watergate case and its aftermath applied the same old criteria that have marked situationism in its long history, and have in recent years been popularized as a rationale for the more articulated form of this consequence-ethic.

It was to be expected that Magruder’s former teacher, now chaplain of Yale University, would proclaim a total disjunction between his own breaking of laws as part of resistance to the Viet Nam war and the alleged breaking of laws in the current Watergate affair. Because I have not seen Coffin’s complete reply, it is perhaps unfair to comment upon it. There does seem to be in his response, as quoted in the newspapers, a certain self-righteousness, or at least a lack of recognition of the ambiguities inherent in his own position. He and other war resisters seem to have reached rather easily the conclusion that the means they used were the best available for the achievement of their objectives, or at least necessary to gain the desired end.

It may be shown to be true that their motives and ends were pure and their means in harmony with the best tradition of nonviolent resistance. One is tempted, however, to wonder why these resisters uniformly employed attorneys equipped with knowledge of every legal loophole by which they could secure acquittal for their clients upon technicalities. If they were willing to go to prison for conscience’ sake, they were seldom willing to remain there.

The secular press quotes a Texas pastor as inquiring: “What were all those preachers doing in the White House on Sunday mornings? What were they preaching?” The implication is that if liberal clergymen (who are by definition “prophetic”) had been invited to preach on these occasions, they would have thundered forth effectively against the conditions that produced Watergate. This represents fine hindsight. Actually, most of them were so preoccupied with Southeast Asia that they would probably have done little more than denounce U. S. policies in Viet Nam. It is open to doubt whether any would have been able to rise above this sufficiently to deal in the major moral principles greatly needing emphasis.

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The fact remains that those who have lined up behind the pipers who for a decade now have trumpeted the “New Morality” have little grounds for placing the responsibility for Watergate upon the preaching of personal pietism. Certainly the empirical elements in ethics have been no more in evidence here than in the case of the Harrisburg group or the dealers in the Pentagon Papers.

I believe it can be shown that evangelicals have generally stood up reasonably well at the point of manifesting a principial rather than a situational or contextual ethic. And in those cases in which they have felt it necessary, in the name of a higher law, to challenge existing conditions, they have done so with no larger an admixture of empirical elements than that displayed by theological liberals.

Possibly those who in the name of a “new morality” have disavowed the application of principles as doing violence to people should take another look at their own posture. It is likely that they, no less than the apparent principals in Watergate, should enter the behavioral situation armed with some clear-cut rules concerning right and wrong.

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