Would Jesus Forgive Ken Starr?

A little over a month ago I attended an evening of offbeat film where one of the archivists responsible for the program introduced himself as hailing from Raleigh, N.C. He said that he used to say this was the home of Slim Jims (I think) and Jesse Helms. But since the cooking of spicy meat bi-products was going on somewhere else, and since Jesse Helms had died, he could no longer talk that way about his home. At the point where he mentioned Helms’ death, the mostly academic and artsy crowd began to applaud.

Now I know conservatives are regularly guilty of bad taste and the examples of Rush and Glen provide daily reminders to non-conservatives of how mean the Right is supposed to be. But I find it hard to believe that even the vox talk-radioli greeted the news of Edward Kennedy’s death with the same glee evident at this evening of film. Granted, everyone on planet earth is a sinner and so constantly guilty of hypocrisy (which is sort of Paul’s point in Romans 1 and 2, right?). So I shrugged off the incident and despite discomfort with the egregious bad taste stuck around for the movies (plus, I had paid my $7). But I do scratch my head at the liberal talking point that conservatives are meanies when instances like this, not to mention various hosts at MSNBC, seem to balance the scales of meanness between the Right and the Left. If liberals want conservatives to stop being mean, shouldn’t they embody the niceness that supposedly typifies their understanding of a good society?

I was reminded of this incident when reading Randall Balmer’s recent reflections about the appointment of Kenneth Starr as president of Baylor University. I myself think that the Republicans treatment of Bill Clinton during the Lewinski scandal was in the ballpark of Clinton’s own shameful behavior – maybe not at home plate, but still inside the white lines. But liberals don’t forgive and forget anymore than conservatives, hence the helpings of meanness that fill up both the Right’s and the Left’s plates.

Balmer writes:

Starr’s appointment is not surprising because it apparently reflects the right-wing leanings of the regents, if not necessarily the faculty or the students. Starr as special prosecutor, of course, sought to bring down the Clinton administration. (Was it my imagination, or did Starr seem just a tad too interested in the tawdry Monica Lewinsky business?) Starr also has been dean of the notoriously right-wing Pepperdine Law School, and he has been in the forefront of supporters for California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that reversed the legalization of same-sex marriages.

At the announcement of his appointment, Starr sought to play down his past. “Baylor’s pursuit of knowledge,” he intoned, leaning closely to read his notes, “is strengthened by the conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God.”

As a person of faith, I have no quarrel with that statement. But the real question for the faculty and students at Baylor is how the new administration approaches the “pursuit of knowledge” at the university. What if the pursuit of knowledge entails stem-cell research or leads to the conclusion (gasp!) that evolution is the most satisfactory explanation of human origins? What if a member of the religion department or the divinity school faculty notices that Jesus really had little or nothing to say about homosexuality or that Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female merits a capacious interpretation?

The difficulty for Balmer here is even greater than the one that afflicted my fellow movie watchers. On a minor level, he should know that universities, their trustees, and presidents regularly engage in activities that are inconsistent with the ideals they uphold. Think, for instance, of the welcome that Balmer’s institution, Columbia University, gave to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But an even greater problem is that Balmer identifies with the evangelical left, a group of believers who supposedly point to the kinder and gentler Sermon on the Mount, as opposed to the Right’s harsh Ten Commandments, as the model for Christians getting along. So if Christians are to do as Jesus did, turn the other cheek, and forgive at least seventy times seven, why is Balmer publicly bearing a grudge against Starr? If the love and forgiveness that Jesus taught and practiced is supposed to provide a different model of Christian engagement in public life and discourse, wouldn’t it be good either to let this editorial against Starr go, or extend the right hand of fellowship and thereby embody the sort of ethic that Balmer finds lacking in the Religious Right?

It could be that wherever you get your law, either from Moses or Jesus, it is awfully demanding and so fails to produce the Rodney King-like society for which that liberals and evangelical lefties pine. Or it could be that Balmer is simply regretting that his most recent book has come out with Baylor University Press. At least he can explain that it wasn’t issued on Starr’s watch.

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6 thoughts on “Would Jesus Forgive Ken Starr?

  1. Since Ken Starr’s name has been brought up, I would add that some factual accurac from the evangelical left would be welcome. Judge Star has been miscast by the left as a crazed prosecutor of President Clinton. The fact are otherwise.

    When Starr, an esteemed former federal appeallate court judge, started work as the Whitewater independent counsel in August 1994, Starr was very reluctant to accept the role but felt a strong call to public service and didn’t feel at liberty to decline. Star made clear that he never wanted to be a seemingly permanent prosecutor whose investigation dragged on interminably — in short, a Lawrence Walsh, whose Iran-contra inquiry lasted two administrations past the one he was charged with probing. But, alas, the independent counsel statute requires this kind of tanacity and longevity, and once a prosecutor accepts the role, the canons of legal ethics and the law require the prosecutor to investigate every credible allegation.

    Yet 3 1/2 years later, Starr found himself at the helm of an investigation that assumed Walsh-like proportions, spending more than $26 million on an investigation that began in 1978 with an Arkansas land deal and later metastasized to encompass the firing of White House travel office employees, the gathering of FBI files on Republican White House aides, the possible perjury of President Clinton’s former White House counsel and the mysterious reappearance in the White House of Rose Law Firm billing records two years after they were subpoenaed. Then, of course, came the most explosive expansion of his probe — into allegations that the president tried to cover up an affair with a White House intern.

    As part of its own self-defense and political/legal strategy, the Clinton administration engaged in an extraordinary public feud with Starr, blaming him for doing his job as the independent counsel statute required. The Clinton charges were false and grossly unfair, and known to Clinton and his administration to be false. Blame Congress for passing the monstrosity of a bill. Those who worked with Starr, are quick to defend his brilliance, integrity, and his own angst and displeasure at having to do the nasty job he did.

    The left will never treat him fairly, however, because he is a convenient pinata-symbol for the GOP and conservatives, which they hate. Fair minded people reject the caricature of Starr and recognize him for being the bright, honest — and reluctant — public servant he was.

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  2. The left were all for a special prosecutor when Richard Nixon was the target, but not when Clinton was. It’s similar to executive privilege. The left hates it when Richard Nixon used it against Jaworsky, or when Bush used it re: Chenney, but not when Eisenhower used it against McCarthy. It’s all politics.

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  3. Doug Wilson said publicly upon the Lion of Massachusetts’ death that “The life of Senator Kennedy, lived very much in public view, was a life that was badly lived,” which sounds an awful lot like certain uncouth hecklers at a movie screening. (1 Peter 2:13-17, anyone?)

    But at least one wonder of two-kingdom theology (something religious lefties and righties seem to equally disdain) is that it allows individuals who fight (well or not-so-well) in the world six days a week to sup together in the church once a week.

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  4. CVD:

    I agree completely. Under the Independent Counsel Act (reauthorized in 1994), the independent counsel (Ken Starr) does not determine the scope of the investigation. The scope of the investigation is determined by a three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit Court. It was that panel, not Starr, who expanded the inquiry into details of President Clinton’s sex life. The the inquiry started out (legitimately) as an investigation into the apparent suicide of Vincent Foster and Hillary Clinton’s misuse of FBI files.

    Starr was given a job to do, and he did it.

    Don’t you all long for the days when $26 million was considered an outrageous expense by the government? Just a couple of weeks ago we paid federal employees $400 million dollars to sit at home because there was a little snow on the ground. And that’s a low estimate.

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  5. RL:

    Thanks for reminding us that the independent counsel doesn’t determine the investigation’s scope, but a three-judge panel.

    Politics being a rough business, it’s understandable that the Clinton machine and the Democratic Paty would slur Judge Starr’s good name because it’s useful for them to do so and because they can. But many lawyers also have joined in the blood sport, though they should know better. And worse, professing Christians like Mr. Balmer should have a higher regard for the truth. It’s revealing about Mr. Balmer that he doesn’t bother to encumber himself with the facts about Judge Starr’s investigation before asserting such libels as Judge Starr was motivated to “bring down” the Clinton administration and “seemed a tad too interested in the tawdry Monica Lewinsky business …” We can’t let the facts get in the way of a good slur.

    Mr. Balmer is wrong to

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  6. hi, great post by the way. Really enjoyed plunging into the deeper issues surrounding this. I personally think that Jesus is a really hard figure in history to pin down, as to who he actually was. I have spent inordinate hours time thinking about jesus, and the more I do, the less I am able to put him in a box. Once I managed to get over the whole historical accuracy of christian scriptures, I have been enthralled in it.

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