Why Not Give Hillary Clinton a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card?

Far more than healing from the division over the a choice of candidates for President, Americans need healing from the division between the rich and powerful and the poor and weak.

By Calvin Beisner Published on November 23, 2016

“I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” said President-elect Donald Trump on November 22, reversing his frequent statements that if he were elected, Hillary Clinton would go to jail. “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many ways.”

The statement doesn’t rule out the possibility that Hillary Clinton will face prosecution. The decision isn’t properly the President’s to make but lies with the Justice Department. Yet Presidents’ priorities sometimes determine Attorney Generals’, and in this case that’s likely.

Asked why he was backing off of his campaign rhetoric, Trump said, “It’s just not something that I feel strongly about.”

It’s good to see such sentiments. They reveal a side of Donald Trump that wasn’t always very visible on the campaign trail, though close friends and associates have said all along it was there: compassion and pity. They’re the opposite of the angry, vindictive temper Trump often displayed.

It’s as if Trump has suddenly come face-to-face with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38–39).

So why am I, who taught Christian ethics in seminary and stressed the need for humility and forgiveness, not celebrating?

There’s a difference between grace, which is favor contrary to merit, and justice, which is rendering what is due.

Well, I am celebrating — Trump’s personal grace shown in compassion and kindness (assuming, as I’m willing to do, that those, and not only political expediency, motivated his turnaround).

But I’m not celebrating the public injustice should Clinton go unprosecuted.

Two key distinctions arise: between personal and public, and between grace and justice.

First, there are differences between ethical action for private persons and ethical action for public officials. The private person may not forcibly take property from others, but the public person, under certain circumstances, may. The former we call theft; the latter, collecting taxes.

Second, there’s a difference between grace, which is favor contrary to merit, and justice, which is rendering what is due (Romans 2:6). The Apostle Paul spelled that difference out pointedly when he wrote about why God saves some and not others: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift [Greek charis, “grace”] but as his due” (Romans 4:4) and “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

An important element of Christian ethics is that God ordains public officials to enforce justice, not to dispense grace.

Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek were addressed to persons acting in their private capacity and prescribed grace. Paul echoed them when he wrote,

Live in harmony with one another. … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” [Romans 12:16–19]

But Paul didn’t stop there. He turned immediately from forbidding vengeance by private persons to prescribing it for civil governments:

Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger to who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. [Romans 13:3b–4]

An important element of Christian ethics is that God ordains public officials to enforce justice, not to dispense grace.

Those two distinctions — between personal and public, and between grace and justice — come directly into play when we ask whether Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for her alleged violations of national security law by transmitting classified information over her private server. She should be.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and now a leader of his transition team, said, “I think Hillary Clinton still has to face the fact that a majority of Americans don’t find her to be honest or trustworthy. … But if Donald Trump can help her heal then perhaps that’s a good thing.”

The grace motivating that statement is laudable, but there’s a difference between voters’ not trusting you and your being indicted, prosecuted, convicted, and punished for a crime, especially one so serious.

The general rationale for not prosecuting Clinton is that the nation needs to put the divisiveness of the campaign behind it, seek healing, and move on. That, too, is a laudable motive, but it ignores two very important facts: The first is that Clinton’s mishandling of classified information occurred years before the campaign. The second is a crucial ethical principle: the Rule of Law, which requires that all relevant laws apply to all people equally. 

As former military attorney David French pointed out, had Clinton been a military officer and, even once, transmitted classified information over an unsecured email server (not to mention lying to Congress and the FBI about it, and the conflict of interest between the Clinton Foundation and her powers as Secretary of State), she would undoubtedly have faced a career-killing general officer memorandum of reprimand, almost certainly a court-martial, and probably criminal charges under the Espionage Act, conviction for which could have sent her to prison.

Do the American people need healing? Yes. But far more than healing from the division over the a choice of candidates for President, they need healing from the division between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, who so often break the law with impunity, and the middle class, poor, and weak, on the other hand, who aren’t considered “too big to fail.”

What America needs is the restored understanding that in America we have, as John Adams put it, “a government of laws and not of men,” and the confidence that those laws apply equally to all, rich and poor, powerful and weak, popular and despised. Giving Clinton a get-out-of-jail-free card further erodes that confidence.

The issue is not whether Hillary Clinton has suffered a lot. It’s whether she’s broken the law. If President-elect Trump wants the law to apply to immigrants, he should want it to apply to Clinton as well.


Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., was Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary 2000–2008 and the author of Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Compassion.

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  • jgmusgrove

    What I would like to see is an investigation of all Hillary Clinton’s questionable actions and publication of those that were possibly/likely criminal. Perhaps even have a grand jury consider indictments. Then, beside that listing, the 3 longest sentences and fines applied to others who were convicted of those same crimes in recent years, their names not included of course. Let the public see the errors, potential crimes and potential judgments attributed to Hillary’s actions, so both friend and foe see the real liability she created for herself and why she had no business being a Presidential candidate. The decision about prosecution could then follow that publication.

  • Christian Cowboy

    President Elect Trump saying he doesn’t want to pursue Hillary should be the start of the healing of this country. Lets put the past in the past and move on to a better tomorrow.

  • Kevin Carr

    As a public official a certain trust was put in her to act in the best interest of the country she was supposed to serve. If she is allowed to skate what does that say to others that lost careers for far lesser offenses? It also shows there is no equal protection under the law. If you have enough money and are politically well connected the law does not apply to you. The “little people” will still have the law apply to them. There will be no talk of healing because it will be on such a smaller scale and the nation will not know about it. The next high profile person that violates the law could then use the Hillary defense. What about the victims of Benghazi? Where is justice for them and their families? Just tell them “the nation needs to heal”.

  • Chip Crawford

    Justice was miscarried when HRC was excused from legal culpability due to the politicalization of the Justice Dept backed by the current president. That is a banana republic reaction, not a nation with the rule of law. Almost immediately after Director Comey’s statement, rebellion broke out in the streets against police officers and has continued with added defiance of authority in numbers and intensity we have not known in this country, possibly since the civil rights riots and upheavals of the 60’s, but maybe ever. I am not linking those responses to people’s conscious reactions to the ruling. The rebels uphold such flouting of laws. I dare to offer that a spiritual protector was ripped apart at the top level when an obvious deal was made and the lawful enforcement of justice was deferred. Lawlessness at that level opened us up spiritually to the practice of lawlessness among the populace. We have been given a chance in a new administration to correct that gross and unGodly injustice. We must take it.

  • Excellent article!

  • L. Young

    At this point Mrs. Clinton has not even acknowledged doing anything wrong. The process has not yet begun that should even consider healing…

  • Doug Fox

    Dr. John Witherspoon used to teach a class at the College of New Jersey during his tenure there (1768-1794) called Moral Philosophy. In the class he made the point that “Laws should be so framed as to promote such principles in general as are favorable to good government, and particularly principle, if there be one, that gave rise to the constitution, and is congenial to it.”

    In context Witherspoon is making reference to some of the different significant republics in the history of the world and he notes that each one had its unique principle upon which it is founded:

    “When I say that in the management of a state, the utmost attention should be given to the principle of the constitution, to preserve it in its vigor, I mean that though all other crimes are bad, and in part tend to the ruin of the state, yet this is much more the case with crimes against that principal than any other.”

    He then give the example of Sparta where he suggests that if fine houses and furniture, and delicate entertainments were introduced there, it would have undermined the very essence of the Spartan Constitution and thus would be undermined the State and resulted in its “instant ruin.”

    There is an obvious connection to building the new republic in America, which is in the background here. The fundamental unique principal of this new state in America is liberty, and justice for all. So all crimes in America are bad, but crimes against liberty and justice for all (in terms of encroachments upon civil and religious liberties) must be seen as the worst of all evils and are bound to lead to the ruin of the new nation if allowed to prevail.

    It is easy to see how his student James Madison was given some bedrock principles to work with here as he worked out the details of what were to become the founding principles in the American Constitution. Founding principles stemming from, in Jefferson’s’ phrase, “all men are [understood to be] created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and this demonstrates how seminal was the training Madison received at the College from his very wise teacher. These rights are not subject to the common suffrage, instead they are bestowed by God, and as such, they are “unalienable” that is, they cannot be taken away or denied. This is the unique principle that gave rise to the American Constitution. Crimes against such a bedrock principle are especially egregious. The bedrock principle is that “all men [and women] are created equal” so there can be no standard for a ruling class that is not equally applied to all the people of the United States. If she is allowed to walk away, it should be a very egregious crime against our nation.

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