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Confession, contrition and forgiveness: The intersection of religion and politics in Bill Clinton's explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair

Matthew H Barton, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation investigates the relationship between politics and religion in the American political system. Specifically, this analysis examines Bill Clinton's explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair. I enter this study through the lens of civil religion to help emphasize the significant influence of religion on our national understanding of politics and presidential behavior. ^ The rhetorical impetus for this study explores the extant scholarly literature on public apology and image repair strategies. I suggest that these bodies of research do not fully account for the complexities of this discourse because of the technical nature of these descriptive taxonomies. In the Clinton case, it is important to recognize that we are really dealing with an event beyond apologia, we are dealing with a public confession. As such, the technical categories of apologia fall short in this context. I argue that an adequate understanding of Clinton's account of his behavior must consider the influence of religious ritual and cultural myth. In other words, I assert that the apologia and image-repair literatures take insufficient account of the cultural mythology that governs requests for forgiveness. Evidence for this claim comes from two sources: Clinton's progressive rhetorical choices that led him toward a more complete and valid religious confession, and the media's use of a religious frame to interpret Clinton's explanations of the Lewinsky affair. ^ I conclude by discussing what the Clinton case teaches us about the enduring tensions among the legal, partisan, and religious cultures in American politics and explore the larger tension between liberalism and democracy that is drawn out in this analysis. Further, I explain the implications of this research in terms of advancing rhetorical theory. ^

Subject Area

Biography|Religion, General|Speech Communication|Political Science, General|Language, Rhetoric and Composition

Recommended Citation

Barton, Matthew H, "Confession, contrition and forgiveness: The intersection of religion and politics in Bill Clinton's explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair" (2002). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3055259.