Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: An Unfinished Conversation About Christian Morality

Oct 25, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

The current flap resurfacing the decades-old "he said, she said" debate between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill is thick with religious specters.

One primary question that gets asked too rarely: How much honesty about the foibles and feet of clay of our clergy, politicians and judges can devout Christians tolerate in the interest of a healthier American moral life?

Some of us thought and hoped that we'd left behind the bitterness and posturing of the 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings that saw the nation gripped by the partisan rancor displayed by its elected officials. No such luck.

The resurrection of the controversy over sexual harassment charges brought by Hill against Thomas came to light earlier this week, when the Brandeis law professor revealed that Thomas's wife had recently left her a voice mail message asking her to say "sorry."

I'm sure that I wasn't the only one in the United States wondering why Virginia (Ginni) Thomas was so troubled by Hill's conduct, almost 20 years after her husband's successful confirmation.

In the wake of those hearings, Hill had been disparaged at the time by many Senators, including Utah's Orrin Hatch, who insinuated that she had made up the charges. One would think that Ginni Thomas, a high-profile conservative lobbyist, would have put these demons to rest a long time ago. Why do they still haunt her?

But the three protagonists (or antagonists) weren't left to occupy the stage alone. Within days, as inexorably as in a Greek tragedy, former Thomas companion Lillian McEwen corroborated Hill's accusations, alleging that Thomas was, according to one interview, "obsessed with pornography."

Was it possible, I speculated, that in the circles in which Thomas and her husband move, ones that are home to so many conservative Christians, it would be unthinkable to be an icon of public integrity, and yet have such feet of clay?

We don't know much about the religious life of Clarence and Virginia Thomas. Either the press doesn't choose to write about it, or they choose to live a private spiritual life.

Yet in her now-famous voice mail message, Mrs. Thomas urged Hill to "certainly pray" about the possibility of an apology, parlance common among evangelical Christians.

I'm troubled that it seems increasingly possible that Thomas was, perhaps, guilty as charged. But I'm even more disturbed that our desire to see our leaders as either heroes or villains doesn't allow us to admit their humanity -- and need for grace.

Ten years ago, I was serving as an associate rector in a Philadelphia-area evangelical church, when it came to my attention that a number of Christian men struggled with an addiction to pornography. The head pastor preached on the topic. A parishioner prominent in local corporate circles bravely told other congregants that he was recovering from entanglement with virtual sex addiction.

I now see that what was going on in my congregation at the time was admirable, partly because it seems so rare. A willingness to publicly admit to and acknowledge flawed behavior many would have liked to have left unexpressed and unconfessed should be part of the gene pool of church life and perhaps part of our public life, too.

But one church doesn't make a national trend. Conservative Christians (and yes, liberal ones, too, as in my own diocese of Pennsylvania) continue to be hammered by sex-themed scandals that divide congregations and erode public trust.

The way in which the Thomas flap has erupted into view so long after the contentious hearings suggests that the dialogue over morality will be ongoing. Americans, among the most overtly religious people in the Western world, continue to be fascinated with the places where the private lives and potential hypocrisy of the guardians of our public morality intersect.

But that doesn't mean that we have gotten any better at finding healthy ways to cope with our own sexual ambivalence and hypocrisy, or to challenge our public leaders to exhibit more genuinely moral behavior.

And if Christian religious leaders are to point their flock in a more positive direction with regard to sexual and social morality, they might want to begin with the admission that they aren't icons of godly virtue but broken sinners subsiding solely on God's grace.

In other words, it's not just Anita Hill who needs to take a moment to pray. When it comes to the moral life of our nation, we should all spend some time on our knees.