Lynn Madden, music director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, the home church of President Bill Clinton, has nothing but praise for the musical abilities of his notable choir member and saxophonist. But other Southern Baptist leaders say Clinton is out of tune with them in dealing with a number of important social issues.

While congratulating him on his election victory, many Baptist leaders are quick to point out their disagreements and call for a change of heart in the former Arkansas governor.

Conservatives object

One week after Clinton’s victory at the polls, Richard Land, executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission (CLC), sent an open letter to the then Presidentelect. In it, Land promised the prayers of fellow Southern Baptists that God would bless Clinton with safety, health, and spiritual blessings. “We will both pray for you and exhort you to apply biblical principles and values as you make policy decisions.”

Land voiced support for the new administration’s backing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and required health warnings on alcohol advertising. He praised the efforts of Tipper Gore, wife of Vice-president Al Gore, to warn consumers about the lyrics of some rock songs, and the support Hillary Clinton has offered to a recent antipornography campaign. But he went on to urge the President to reconsider his stated positions on abortion, homosexual rights, and public funding of art considered by some as blasphemous or obscene.

That letter apparently set the tone for resolutions from a dozen state Baptist conventions, including those in Arkansas and Gore’s home state of Tennessee, which echoed Land’s two-track message of prayer and policy.

Arkansas Baptists also took issue with Clinton’s support for the distribution of condoms in public schools. Meeting just one week after the election, the state convention debated and eventually added an amendment to its resolution, stating that, in spite of Clinton’s church membership, “he does not represent our views on these issues.”

Other conservative Baptist leaders express similar mixed emotions about the new man in the White House. Convention president Ed Young says Southern Baptists “will support [Clinton] in every way possible, but by the same token, as Baptist people we would disagree on many moral issues, and we must take the position we believe to be in accordance with the Word of God.”

Protests in Little Rock

Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s home church in Little Rock was the scene of regular protests by the fundamentalist God Said Ministries. Its leader, W. N. Ortwell, demanded that the 4,300-member church discipline Clinton for his positions on abortion, homosexual rights, and other issues.

At the same time, conservative Southern Baptists, as well as moderates, are pleased with the new administration’s stands on a number of issues. Clinton and Gore’s backing of RFRA draws praise from Land and from the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC).

Two years ago the SBC withdrew its funding of the BJC when conservatives in control of the convention grew dissatisfied with the BJC’s positions and activities on a number of issues. But both Land and BJC director James Dunn are excited by the prospects for RFRA’s passage under the Clinton administration, an action they see as essential to protecting religious freedoms. The bill, left among other unfinished business by an election-year Congress, would, in effect, override the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Oregon v. Smith. That decision opened the door for government to limit the free exercise of religion.

End Vatican ties?

The CLC is also being joined by other Protestant groups in urging Clinton to end formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In 1984, President Reagan appointed an ambassador to the Vatican for the first time in U.S. history. At that time, a broad coalition of religious groups opposed the action, arguing that it breached church-state separation. They now feel Clinton may offer the last chance to change the policy before it becomes entrenched.

For the most part, Baptists appear more comfortable with Clinton’s more strict understanding of church-state separation. The SBC has opposed any direct government aid to parochial schools, though it has not taken a public-policy position on vouchers.

So far, the exact shape of the Clinton administration’s relationship with religious groups remains to be seen. The White House has yet to name anyone to a role of liaison to any religious community. Robert Maddox, former head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, now pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., aided the Clinton transition team. He believes the President’s approach to the religious community, as to other groups, will be characterized primarily by inclusiveness.

“Absence or presence [in the White House] will not be a political payoff,” Maddox says. “They will listen broadly and carefully.” The “hard Right” may not want to come in, he believes, but other conservatives will have a place.

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In similar fashion, Land also thinks conservative religious groups like the CLC will have access to the new administration. Those who viewed the Religious Right, and the CLC in particular, as comfortably tucked into the former President’s hip pocket—and therefore now out of the White House—were wrong, he says. “We were openly critical of the President [Bush] when we felt he was wrong on an issue.”

Conservative Southern Baptist leaders are heartened, however, by the fact that the nation’s two highest offices are now occupied by fellow Baptists, and that they are active church members. “Consequently, they understand Southern Baptists. They understand the social and political life in a major region of the country,” Land says, something that was lacking in the Bush and Reagan era.

By Ken Sidey, with Baptist Press reports.

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