I’m pretty frequently one of the youngest people in my seminary classes. During my second semester, I took a class that wasn’t one of the entry-level Bible or theology classes I was supposed to be taking, and I was definitely the youngest. We were discussing evangelicals’ views on sexual ethics, and I said offhand that “I remember when we were beating up Bill Clinton for the same things that we’re defending today.” An awkward pause followed, and I sheepishly admitted, “Well, I know that evangelicals did that. I don’t actually remember it.” The truth is, I wasn’t in elementary school yet when the Lewinsky scandal happened. My remembering of this history came from history class, not personal experience.
Listening to the second season of the Slate podcast Slow Burn took that history off the pages of my textbooks. It provides an in-depth account of President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, with plenty that mirrors our current moment. As the 2016 election heated up, I was surprised by the level of suspicion and animosity evangelicals displayed toward Hillary Clinton. I spent high school and college watching their responses to other Democrats, but this felt different. While I knew much of the history, all I had was facts without any of the emotion that comes with actually experiencing the history. Through its mix of audio recordings, present-day interviews, and varied source material, Slow Burn immerses its listeners in the history. Even more significantly, it sets out to ask the very questions I struggled with. What did it feel like to experience this history unfolding? Did it feel differently than it feels to watch similar events happen today? Why does such recent history feel so foreign today? And perhaps most importantly: why did Americans respond to the Lewinsky scandal the way they did?More than anything, Slow Burn reminded me of one of evangelicals’ (and Americans’) greatest blind spots: our own history.
At first glance, the title of the show no longer fits its content: Slow Burn’s first season, detailing the “slow burn” of revelations surrounding the Watergate scandal, was intended to draw attention to the way our collective memory often rushes over details and can make historical comparison difficult. Instead, this season is about a very different kind of controversy, one that unleashes fairly quickly in 1998. In another sense, however, “slow burn” fits this season even more precisely: it looks at one moment in our cultural and political history that feels almost unrecognizable today, due to slow burning conversations around abuse of power, sexual ethics, and consent. In the last couple years, that slow burn has leapt into a raging fire, making it easy to forget how far we’ve come. The conversations today are so wildly different, that it’s jarring to remember what they looked like in the late 90s.
Two episodes of Slow Burn in particular deal with these changing dynamics: “God Mode” and “Bedfellows.” The first explores the religious right’s campaign against Clinton, and the second deals with the now-surprising support that many prominent feminists gave Clinton. Listening to those two episodes feels almost eerie today. The scripts have been flipped, the roles exchanged, the big players have switched teams. Many of the prominent figures in the “God Mode” episode remain big names in the religious right today: Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Bill Bennett. Bennett plays an especially significant role in the episode, as the righteously indignant moral crusader. “I care whether my president is a felon, but I care just as much if he’s a scoundrel. I care just as much whether I can trust him to be telling the truth,” says Bennett in a recording. Similarly, former Senator John Ashcroft says, “Leaders who suggest that they can separate their private lives and their public actions are wrong. Morality is not divisible.” Bennett and Ashcroft both endorsed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, with Bennett arguing that conservatives who refuse to support him “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.”
It’s disheartening to hear the same people who defended the idea that morality matters in politics turn around and claim that the ends justify the means. It’s frustrating to watch the people who wanted politicians to be held accountable for their actions regardless of political consequences defend “their guy” no matter what.
I expected to feel that way. After all, I knew the history—I knew I’d be hearing strong statements from leaders in the religious right that sounded like exactly the kind of statements I wish they were making when a Republican is the one accused of misconduct. What I didn’t expect was to feel the heavy weight of repulsion over the many Clinton scandals. As a child of evangelicals in the mid-90s, I had a vague sense that the Clintons were the “bad guys,” but I didn’t know a lot of details. When Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee in 2016, I didn’t fully understand the vitriol of my fellow evangelicals, and attributed most of it to the conspiracy theories and far-right propaganda I saw in my Facebook feed and on the TV at my grandparent’s house.
Listening to Slow Burn gave me new understanding. I listened to Bill Clinton’s strong denials with the knowledge that he was lying. I heard about the way that Hillary Clinton’s approval numbers climbed as she joined him in the denials. And right as this season of Slow Burn finished up, I heard her say on CBS Sunday Morning that she doesn’t think her husband should have stepped down, because Lewinsky “was an adult” and therefore he couldn’t be accused of any abuse of power.
While plenty of the distrust and fear surrounding Hillary Clinton in 2016 was gendered, misplaced, or rooted in falsehoods, plenty of it wasn’t. I knew that during the election, but Slow Burn helped me feel the emotion behind evangelicals’ frustration. It also reminded me, in the kind of visceral way that reading words off a page can’t, of the hypocrisy and political idolatry of the religious right. I felt the moral indignation that evangelicals felt against Clinton. I also felt the moral indignation of my generation, a generation that has watched many of our leaders abandon the moral principles they taught us in favor of political expediency.
More than anything, Slow Burn reminded me of one of evangelicals’ (and Americans’) greatest blind spots: our own history. We tend to subconsciously believe that we just sprouted up out of nowhere, historically and traditionally untethered. Some of this tendency is theological—we start churches and ministries with the mindset that a good leader and a Bible is all we need. We forget that our practices, culture, and theology are all rooted in history. Our attempts to sever from that history don’t actually create isolated communities and churches, unaffected and untainted by our mixed history. Instead, we merely create communities that are unaware of the history that has shaped it—both the good and the bad.
We can’t completely avoid being shaped by the cultural, political, and religious influences we’re surrounded with, but we can be more conscious of this shaping and intentional about how we respond. As much as we might try, we cannot untether ourselves from the history of evangelicalism or our particular denominations or church traditions. However, we can (and should) learn that history, in order to both appreciate and critically reflect upon it. Listening to Slow Burn gave me new appreciation for the moral indignation evangelicals felt, as well as a powerful reminder of why many of us feel it now. It gave me perspective—the kind of perspective that we miss if we fail to continually learn our own history.