During 1973 we saw the inauguration of a President boasting an overwhelming electoral victory, after which he moved on to a higher pinnacle of success as he disengaged our nation from the longest war in the history of the United States. We paused. We prayed. We breathed a sigh of relief as the ceasefire went into effect. We watched the POWs come home. Many of us saluted the efforts of the commander-in-chief, Richard M. Nixon, who stood at the apex of his career.

Now, a year later, the President stands as a tragic, isolated figure. Dozens of public officials have been swept from positions of great influence, accused of betraying our trust. Bludgeoned by fuel shortages, rising costs, and international unrest, our President and nation seem unable to cope creatively with these problems, held as we are in the clutches of the unresolved Watergate affair.

In looking at Watergate, I do not intend to attack persons or assign guilt. Nor do I intend to defend anyone with a declaration of innocence. I have a deep love for President Nixon and value highly his graciousness to me during my six Key Biscayne years. I greatly appreciate my friendship with him, his family, and some of his White House associates. For me to make fallible human judgments on incomplete data would be foolish. Fortunately, we have a legal system that we can expect to proceed deliberately, convicting those who are guilty and acquitting the innocent.

What I would like to do is to look at Watergate and see what biblical lessons appear. The problem is bigger than any one man, any one administration. We have a responsibility to learn from these distressing events in order to free ourselves by God’s grace from the bondage and inertia of such tragedies.

God’s Word calls for transparent integrity on the part of every single believer in Jesus Christ. It leaves no room for accommodation with wrongdoing. It calls for frankness, honesty, open discussion of difficult problems within the context of biblical faith. Here are some of the biblical lessons we can learn from Watergate.

I “Let Your ‘Yea’ Be ‘Yea’ And Your ‘Nay’ Be ‘Nay.’ ”

The desire to shade truth for personal benefit is a part of human nature. And when we engage in this shading, we are unlikely to analyze the future cost. I have been personally acquainted with some of the principal figures in the Watergate matter. Some of these men either have confessed their dishonesty or clearly appear dishonest if one compares their public statements over a span of several months. I am convinced that some of them did not originally intend to get caught up in such a complicated web of dishonorable activity and dishonest coverup. They rationalized their actions along these lines: “Little white lies don’t make any difference. In fact, they can protect many people from hurt. There’s nothing wrong with a little concealment when the security of our nation is at stake.”

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How about you? Have you ever instructed your secretary to get rid of a phone caller by saying, “Tell him I’m not in”? If so, you have compromised your integrity. You’ve involved yourself in a life style of coverup. How much better to say, “Tell him I’m not available now.” Or, “I’ll return his call later.” Or, if necessary, “I’ll not be able to talk with him at all.” Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37, RSV).

Clean, crisp honesty. A “yea” that is “yea” and a “nay” that is “nay.” Pay some prices right now. But then be free from the possibility of your own Watergate. Coverup functions not only in public life but subtly in our own interpersonal relations in business, marriage, family, and other areas. Yet God wants you and me to be stripped of our phoniness, to be authentic people whose word can be trusted.

II The New Morality Does Not Stand Up

Since the early 1960s there has been a lot of discussion about situational ethics, which also goes under the name of contextual ethics or the new morality. Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal theologian, has been one of the main articulators of this concept. Granted, the new morality means different things to different people. It seems to me that in its purest form it is calling us to be ethically motivated by love instead of by arbitrary laws. Situation ethicists say that a mature person who desires the best for someone else in love is set free to make his ethical decisions, not on the basis of what is set down in the Bible or some legal system, but on the basis of what is really best for all parties involved. An appeal is made to Christ’s statement that love should be our motivation for everything. The greatest commandment of all is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Following this logic, proponents of the new morality would release us from the arbitrary bondage of rules. For example, some say there are circumstances in which an altering of the truth or adultery are permissible.

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I believe Watergate teaches us that this kind of morality does not stand up. In fact, it leads us to an Old Testament statement that underlines the plight of Israel caught up in moral and political anarchy: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eye” (Judg. 21:25).

God has revealed to us, through the Scriptures, how you and I function best. No, we’re not bound by law. We live in the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, a grace that promises God’s forgiveness for everything we have done wrong. But this does not free us to live in the bondage of wrongdoing. Some highly intelligent, capable men felt that the reelection of Richard Nixon was in the highest ethical interest of our nation, and they did all kinds of wrong, which they called right, to gain this end. According to their value system, for him not to be reelected was evil; therefore their defiance of law, in the pursuit of what they considered to be good, was permissible. This explains why they could self-righteously point the finger at criminal and immoral activities carried out by other elements in society without realizing that their activities, both the initial acts and in the coverup, were wrong.

God’s Word calls us to assume an ethical discipline, to live obedient to the guidelines the Lord has revealed in Scriptures. The order we have in society came through the efforts of people who took the moral or divinely revealed law seriously. The relativistic approach in which a person feels he can live above God’s law will only cause him trouble, and hurt those whom he is trying to help.

III Two Wrongs Don’T Make A Right

In discussing Watergate some people have said, “But that’s politics. Everybody else does it. The only thing wrong here was that these men got caught!” It is true, tragically, that elections can be stolen in America. And it is true that a study of our American political process points out some enormous ethical inconsistencies. But does this give us any right to “fight fire with fire”? Absolutely not! We should do all we can to uncover other coverups. We have a God-given responsibility to see that justice prevails.

We are on dangerous ground when we presume to take divinely revealed law into our own hands, using it to our own advantage when it is convenient and dismissing it when we are trying to get even with those who function in a lawless manner. Our insistence that “they all do it” will mean that the horrible experience of Watergate will not purge our society but will only make us look for more subtle ways to get around what is right.

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5. A Letter to Sardis

He saw the broken stone

of your dead works;

and stooped to clay

to form the tablet of a Son,

on which He wrote His love

with you in mind.

Why do you pass

the finger of concern

beneath sin’s

lettered tombstone

of the past? Repent!

He comes,—a thief,

to take those ready

and the choice to be.

6. Church of Philadelphia

Girdling the world with witness,

you’re His key chain.

Through you

He opens doors

that can’t be shut.

Now, urge the seeking world,

“Pass through,—”

to mount the stairs

of His descent, before

a tampering tribulation

will try to change

the locks.

IV Success In A Christian Context Is Determined By Eternal, Not Temporal, Standards

The secular pragmatist is interested in getting results and getting them now. To lose an election is to fail if one’s highest priority is winning. The Christian has the exhilarating opportunity to see beyond the immediate external success syndrome. He is able to realize that in losing he may make a moral and spiritual impact much larger than that made if he wins (especially if he wins using illegal methods). For example, take the election of 1972. As we look back we can say it was inevitable that Richard Nixon would win. Why were any dirty tricks needed? Yet it was not always inevitable that he would win. These illegal activities were carried out long before the election was secured. The highest priority, according to some involved in the campaign, was to win the election. How much happier all the parties would be today if the election had been lost with personal honor and integrity kept intact. Joseph “lost” when he rejected the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife. Doing what was right sent him to jail. Now he stands in the pages of history as an eternal winner, a man of character who would not adapt to the expedient.

The man of God is going to lose at many points in this world. Jesus warns us that the Christian life is a difficult life. Yet he says, “He who loses himself shall find himself. He who would be first shall be last. The last shall be first.” Christ sets our success-failure motivations into a context of the eternal. In reality, Jesus is saying, “God’s payday is not always Friday.” To put it more crassly, it is better to win on the day of judgment as you stand before Almighty God than to win down here.

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Pragmatic, non-spiritual man has no scales on which to measure success or failure except those of the immediate. An editorial in the Christian Century stated it crisply,

The functional man dares not to view his immediate victories in the light of a thousand years, because his entire life is dependent upon that victory. Not to have it treated as ultimate is to require that all our victories be measured against the victory of Advent, which promises us a hope that is not seen. And the moment we are driven into an arena of waiting for something not to be seen, we lose the win-or-lose certainty that powers functional man [December 12, 1973].

Now I realize that this kind of conversation has been used as a narcotic to dull the senses of those who suffer. Give people promises of the future life and they are much more exploitable in this life. God forbid that we twist this to our own purposes.

7. Laodicean Church

The church social

makes sure the coffee’s hot,

with saccarine blend

of animated talk

to sweeten and to cream

for connoisseurs;

but poured into cracked cups

without saucers,

water is shared elsewhere

tepid, lukewarm;

spit out by Christ,—

who stands outside the door.

“Behold, I Come Quickly!”

V Don’T Put Your Faith In America; Put It In Jesus Christ

During the past several months quite a few people have said to me, “I’ve lost my faith in politicians.” But why did they have their faith in politicians in the first place? “I’ve lost my confidence in our public leaders.” The Christian’s confidence is to be in God Almighty, not in human leaders. We all have heard people say, “I believe in the United States.” Imagine that the United States disappeared just as Rome disappeared from its position of world leadership. What would that do to our faith? Would it mean that God was any less alive than he is today? Granted, our circumstances of life would be quite different. But would Jesus Christ be any different? An editorial in Eternity magazine stated:

Hopefully, the relevations of Watergate have brought us back to reality. Unpleasant as the facts were, we can be grateful for the jolting reminder that no man, no party, no administration can give us assurance of righteousness in government.

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Thousands of conservative Christians across the land, consciously or unconsciously, felt that the conservative politics of the administration, coupled with Mr. Nixon’s religious roots and associations, pointed toward a high moral tone in government. The facts have demonstrated otherwise, and we are driven back to the total dependence and trust in God that should characterize us at all times, under all administrations, Democratic, Republican, or otherwise [November, 1973],

I thank God that in the United States there is still some concern about right and wrong. There are countries in this world where corruption in government would never be aired. At least there is a kind of residual ethical impulse that makes us recoil from abuse of the public trust. Former Vice-President Agnew has talked about a post-Watergate morality, using this as a rationalization for his lawless actions. Thank God that there is a kind of post-Watergate morality. And let’s hope that it sticks. Let it never be forgotten.

VI Watergate Gives Us A Correcting Confrontation With The True Nature Of Man

A strange kind of double standard has developed. Some of us have the capacity to speak stirring words about righteousness at public hearings, political rallies, or religious gatherings even though our own lives do not support our claims. One political party points its finger at the coverup morals of another when that same party covered up the corruption of the Bobby Baker scandal. The evening after the resignation of the Vice-President, I had dinner in Washington with a prominent congressman. He said, “Many a governor and ex-governor is shaking in his boots as a result of these Maryland allegations against Agnew. Those same companies which gave him kickbacks are functioning in a number of other states. That’s the way this political business functions.”

There is a tragic disjuncture between personal and social morals. Some of the very men and women who are most quick to accuse the President and others of dishonesty are now totally disregarding the marriage vows of fidelity that they made “till death do us part.” The Bible says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Watergate puts a mirror in front of me, alerting me to the coverups in my own life. My subtle shadings of the truth. My unfaithfulness to the trust people have put in me.

Jesus had some terse words for those who tossed that pathetic adulteress at his feet. With a penetrating expression that could come only from one who had ultimate authority he said, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Suddenly there weren’t many accusers. The self-righteous became guilty. The guilty one was set free with the words, “Go and sin no more.”

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Vii Remember, These Are People

There’s a danger for us in trying to find a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong. I do not for a moment mean to excuse illegal activities. Those who have done wrong should be held responsible. At the same time a man should be considered innocent until proved guilty. And even if he is found guilty, he should be treated as a person who is created in the image of God and still loved by Him. Watergate will help us, I hope, to reanalyze our whole attitude toward the criminal, to show a greater compassion toward people who have sinned against society.

Thank God that the coverup is being uncovered. Thank God that the breaking of laws has been discovered. Thank God that our country, at least for the moment, has been halted in its direction toward a totalitarianism in which the powerful few see fit to live above the law. Let’s remember that these men have children and wives. Many of them were misguided zealots who thought they were serving their country. Some of them, in the process of trying to do their best, failed. There needs to be a love, a compassion, a concern that says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Too long have we taken pornographic delight in the misadventures of others. For too many months now we have eaten away at the vitals of our political and moral system, enjoying Watergate for its entertainment value. Let us love. Let us care. Let us make certain that justice prevails. Let us call for repentance from those who have done wrong, refusing to put a glaze of respectability on immoral activity. But let us temper justice with mercy for all in our society who have failed. Perhaps this is the time for a kind of amnesty, a year of forgiveness, both for those who failed to serve their country in military service and for those who failed to serve their country in the highest levels of leadership. Let us reach out with a gesture of love as we have been loved, a gesture of forgiveness as we have been forgiven, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

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