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.