John Leo
Mass defections from a religious faith are rare in history. Rome abandoned its emperor-worship under Constantine. Sweden abandoned Christianity for the welfare state. Now another great defection is under way. Reporters, talking heads and fashionable folk are beginning to lose their faith in Clintonism.

This is a momentous event, unpredicted as recently as two months ago, when most followers thought the founder could stay as head of their religion for life if only the church's constitution permitted. Some analysts believe that six simultaneous scandals involving the two revered leaders of the vibrant eight-year religion may have something to do with the new doubts.

Probably not, though. Historians tell us that factual evidence rarely plays a part in the decline (or rise) of any faith. Besides, if facts made any difference, the leader's false testament would have led to a schism of some sort or at least cost him a few worshipful pundits. Ditto for the famous missionary outreach to the Chinese and the miracle of the blue dress.

Whatever the cause, spiritual crisis and doubt are all around us now. Sharing his dark night of the soul with readers, one Washington columnist wrote in an open letter to the founder, "I am silent. I can say nothing in your defense." Some believers were shocked by charges that the founder was selling indulgences to exiled sinners for $1 million plus a coffee table or two. Others felt that the founder's wife shouldn't have registered for gifts from the faithful, accepted $8 million from Viacom, or made off with pricey church furniture that someone had neglected to bolt down.

The whole thing "just smells bad," wrote one fervent apostle, a TV and magazine commentator who had not been known for detecting objectionable aromas in her church of choice. The founder and wife, she said, "capped their career in the White House by walking out the door with practically a pillow case stuffed with sterling." She noted that the founder's wife had clearly indicated which gifts she wanted from her followers, including china (Spode) and silver (Faberge). This comment would seem to indicate a break with her old religion.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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