President Bill Clinton’s relationship with evangelicals has become a major news story featured in such media as National Review, New Republic, and ABC World News Tonight. Why is he opening White House doors to a group that by and large has not supported him with their votes? Some Christian leaders (and some journalists) have called it a cynical political attempt to confuse and divide an important Republican constituency. Others see his contacts with evangelical leaders as consistent with his prepresidential religious life. And many evangelicals doubt the sincerity of Clinton’s faith because of his positions on key issues.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked Editor-at-Large Philip Yancey to review the controversy. Besides participating in a well-publicized White House gathering last fall, Yancey also recently joined Executive Editor David Neff in a private interview with the President that focused mainly on the topic of abortion.
Five separate times when conversation has turned to the President I have heard a comment like this: “No way he’s a Christian! All that religious talk is just fake.” When it comes to Bill Clinton, I sense in many Christians a feeling beyond anger, something closer to betrayal. Many evangelicals felt outrage during Clinton’s first few weeks in office as he announced new policies easing abortion restrictions and expanding homosexual rights, and appointed staff members who seemed insensitive or even hostile to the religious community. More than a year later, they still wonder whether the President is merely posing as a Christian.
Recently, Clinton has made deliberate efforts to reach out to evangelicals. Several leaders have spent the night at the White House, and the President has hosted at least five breakfast meetings involving key evangelicals. My report in this magazine about one of those meetings sparked a flood of angry responses. “You say Clinton has biblical knowledge,” said one caller, “well, so does the Devil! You people got snowed.” Numerous letter writers contended that evangelicals were wrong even to meet with the President; six drew parallels with Adolf Hitler, who used pastors for his own purposes.
Clinton’s critics remain unimpressed by religious words and other tokens of faith. One respected national leader wrote me that evangelicals are being “used effectively, although unwittingly, by the White House to confuse conservative Christians and divide the body of Christ.” Gary Bauer of the Family Research Counsel says simply, “Judge by what he does, not what he says.”
Whatever else one may say about it, Bill Clinton’s faith is definitely not a creation of White House spin doctors. He grew up in Bible Belt Arkansas in an era when ministers still conducted school assemblies and students read Bible passages over the loudspeaker every morning. Except for his grandparents, his family was nonreligious. His stepfather regularly got drunk and beat his wife; once he was arrested for firing a gun into the wall of his house. Partly to escape this domestic chaos, Bill began attending the Park Place Baptist Church from the age of eight.
Every Sunday morning young Bill Clinton would put on a suit and walk a mile down the sidewalks of Hot Springs to church, clutching his leather Bible. At age ten he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. A year later Clinton asked a Sunday-school teacher to drive him 50 miles to Little Rock to attend a Billy Graham crusade. He admired the evangelist for resisting pressure to segregate his crusade, and from then on Clinton set aside nickels and dimes to send to Graham. Schoolteachers thought Bill himself might grow up to be an evangelist.
As he attended Georgetown, Yale, and then Oxford universities, Clinton’s religious fervor cooled. He married Hillary Rodham, returned to Arkansas to settle, and became the youngest governor in the nation. He had an unbroken string of successes until 1980 when, in a stunning upset, he lost his bid for re-election. Clinton felt depressed and aimless. Problems in the marriage surfaced, and rumors about Bill’s alleged extramarital affairs began to spread.
In 1980, two events occurred that Clinton now cites as markers pointing the way back. First, his daughter, Chelsea, was born. Second, he took a pilgrimage to Israel led by the Reverend W. O. Vaught. The minister became a kind of father figure for Clinton, and soon afterward Clinton joined Vaught’s church, started singing in its choir, and for the first time in his life began serious Bible study. A neighbor says that C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity also played an important role in Clinton’s spiritual renewal.
A friend asked me, “What kind of religious animal is Bill Clinton?” To give a fair answer I would point to a species like the platypus: part reptile, part mammal, part bird. Our first President to graduate from a Catholic college now attends a Baptist church and is married to a lifelong Methodist. In fact, though, he may feel most at home with the more emotional worship style of African-Americans and Pentecostals. As governor, he would bring his saxophone to an annual Pentecostal revival marked by glossolalia, clapping, and rousing music.
Clinton says he was initially reluctant to talk about his faith in public life “because the story of the Pharisees made a big impression on me when I was a child.… And whenever I have spoken in a church I always stand up and say, ‘I come here as a sinner, not a saint, because I’m weak, not strong.’ ” Once, when asked if he believed in life after death, he replied, “Yeah, I have to. I need a second chance.”
Clinton told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that “in some ways faith is harder for me, and in some ways it’s easier” now that he is President. Washington, “the most secular city I’ve ever lived in,” is a challenging place in which to practice, say, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. “Yet, believe it or not, even though I work long hours, I have more opportunities to be alone and to pray.” Clinton claims he prays more as President, reads the Bible—he stayed up until 3 A.M. reading the Book of Joshua before the Middle East peace signing—and looks to his old pastor in Little Rock for spiritual guidance. “Rex Horne calls me every Saturday night without fail.”
The White House staff tries to free up three hours of quiet time each day in which the President can read, write, nap, practice his golf stroke, or do anything except go to meetings, and this is the time when Clinton prays and reads Christian books. Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency and Tony Campolo’s Wake Up America! were recent titles. “And it helps me. You’d be amazed what it does, because I read everything—government reports, histories, mysteries—but the time I spend reading these books … gives me a certain serenity that would not be there otherwise. I always keep one going all the time, no matter what I’m doing.”
In person, Bill Clinton talks freely and convincingly about his faith. I have not met a single Christian leader who, after meeting with Clinton, comes away questioning his sincerity. One Christian college president is “absolutely convinced of his deep and sincere faith,” and says the President knows his Bible. Another evangelical guest at the White House claimed that the President is “not only a Christian but an evangelical Christian”—who believes the Apostles’ Creed and has a very high view of Scripture.
Edward G. Dobson, pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, has impeccable credentials with the Religious Right: he graduated from Bob Jones University, worked for Jerry Falwell (writing the original platform for the Moral Majority), and served as editor of Fundamentalist Journal. Here is his response after a White House meeting with others involved in AIDS ministry: “Is Bill Clinton a Christian? I don’t know. I’m not God. How do you know I’m a Christian? We look at clues and evidences. Does Clinton know the Scriptures? Is he affected emotionally by things like prayer? Does he go to church every week, carry his Bible, claim to have a relationship with Christ? The answer to all these questions is yes. I believe he’s more deeply spiritual than any President we’ve had in recent years.
“Next question,” Dobson continues: “How can I reconcile Bill Clinton’s faith with his policies? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I won’t meet with him and have dialogue. Falwell called the other day, making plans to go to Cuba in an attempt to see Castro. ‘I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for meeting with the President,’ I told him, ‘but, Jerry, I have yet to meet with a Communist!’ ”
Ed Dobson, like others, has heard the charge that he is simply being used by the White House for political ends. “A Christian leader compared me to one of the false prophets who told Ahab and Jezebel what they wanted to hear. That hurt. But I’d go anywhere, including to hell, as long as there were no limitations on what I could say. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, Whom we wish to change we must first love. I’m trying to speak the truth in love, that’s all.”
Ed Dobson’s dilemma, reconciling Bill Clinton’s faith and his policies, lies at the heart of Clinton’s problems with evangelicals. How has it happened that a President’s policies have so thoroughly alienated him from a constituency he views as his spiritual kin? I had the opportunity to ask the question of Clinton himself.
“There are two big reasons,” Clinton said. “First, over several years the leaders of the evangelical community have gotten more and more identified with the conservative wing of the Republican party.
“Second, some of those same people have made abortion and homosexuality the litmus test of whether you’re a true Christian. Certainly these are not the most-mentioned issues in the Bible, but they’re the things that have become the litmus test, and if you’re wrong on them, it’s almost like saying you’re a fraud, you can’t really be a Christian.”
Church historian Mark Noll observes that evangelicals tend to remain aloof from politics except for occasional, impassioned campaigns. Some of these campaigns are highly moral, such as the anti-slavery movement; some are misguided, such as the campaign against Catholic immigration; and some are simply quixotic, such as the crusade against the Masons. In abortion and gay rights, evangelicals have found two big moral issues that galvanize the troops to enter the political fray.
Millions of Americans make voting decisions on the abortion issue alone. To them, Clinton’s support for abortion rights makes him a mass murderer. Nothing he might say about his personal faith could possibly counteract the devastating effect of that one policy. When Billy Graham merely agreed to pray at Clinton’s inauguration, pro-life activists blasted his decision as “a great embarrassment for all who call themselves evangelical.”
Clinton’s early pro-choice and progay decisions gave a wake-up call to the Religious Right. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition has signed up 900,000 members, and Robertson sketches the political scene in apocalyptic terms: “America has become a predominantly anti-Christian pagan nation—and our government has become a weapon the anti-Christian forces now use against Christians and religious people.”
Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, echoes the same call, but her “open letter to President Clinton” shows that the agenda for concern has expanded well beyond abortion and gay rights to include Clinton’s “massive government intrusion into every aspect of our lives: dramatic tax increases, socialized medicine, government price controls, federal regulation of businesses and our free enterprise economy, official support of the efforts to redefine the American family, the use of federal tax dollars for abortion, and mandatory ‘valueless’ sex education and pro-promiscuity programs in our public schools.”
In his January letter to supporters, James Dobson listed 53 separate “developments that served to undermine traditional moral values” in the previous year. “Can there be any doubt,” Dobson concluded, “that a great Civil War of Values is being waged in Western nations.… [The family’s] demise is being orchestrated at the highest levels of government, and by radical special-interest groups.”
Dobson raised an excellent question: If Clinton is committed to having his high-level appointments “look like America,” he asked, why are there so few evangelicals in key positions?
It is against this background that some evangelicals question the wisdom of even meeting with President Clinton. As one person wrote to me, “What some interpret as hatred are very legitimate emotions in times of national crisis: despair, anxiety, discouragement, and righteous anger. People are alarmed to observe that their government has suddenly lurched to the left. Everything they have believed and fought for has been undermined by this Bible-toting politician who claims to be a believer.”
Those who read only the publications of the President’s Christian critics might think that the administration presents a unified front against all their interests. In truth, Clinton himself has been making speeches eerily reminiscent of the Traditional Values Coalition. His aides report that the reality of violence in America, especially that involving children, has turned the President’s focus in a new direction, causing him to give attention not just to government programs but to a spiritual renewal based on the value of hard work, self-discipline, and commitment to family.
In a speech to the Church of God in Christ last November, Clinton spoke of “the great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said Clinton, “did not live and die to see the American family destroyed, to see 13-year-old boys get automatic weapons and gun down 9-year-olds just for the kick of it.” Clinton went on to commend the black church for its important role in holding communities together.
Encouraged by the response to that speech, Clinton started using the bully pulpit of the presidency to stress family values and personal responsibility. He talked tough on crime and stressed the need for welfare reform. Shocking some Democrats, he even resurrected the infamous speech in which Dan Quayle attacked TV’s Murphy Brown. “I thought there were a lot of very good things in that speech,” Clinton told Tom Brokaw, and then Newsweek. “Would we be a better-off society if babies were born to married couples? You bet we would.”
I witnessed a scene (barely mentioned in the press) that put Clinton’s bully pulpit skills to an extreme test. On the same day as the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Clinton visited Kramer Junior High School, a rugged inner-city school in southeast Washington. Clinton minced no words with the all-black student body. “I’m trying to do everything I can to give you more hope and more possibility for the future. But I can’t lead your life for you. Every day you have to decide whether to be on time or not, whether to attend classes, whether to take drugs, whether to do your homework. And I’ll be honest with you. The very best thing you can do to stay out of poverty is to make up your mind to wait to have a baby till you’re old enough to take care of it and until you’re married. You young men who get a girl pregnant and just walk away from her—you know it’s wrong. It’ll haunt you and stay with you all your life.”
Clinton went on to talk in explicit terms about sex and about drug abuse. The speech offered an unusual glimpse of the power of the presidency, a view not seen by most Americans and one barely imaginable to Clinton’s staunchest critics. Beverly LaHaye’s open letter had called for Clinton to “Preserve the moral values on which America is founded, speak out against promiscuity among our youth, and advocate abstinence before marriage.” At Kramer Junior High, though he stopped short of saying abstinence, he was clearly undergirding, not undermining, traditional values.
“That was a tough audience,” Clinton told us with a sigh as he folded his long legs into the presidential limousine. “Afterwards a girl came up to me, probably about 14, and showed me a picture of her baby. What I talked about is real life for these kids.”
It was eleven o’clock in the morning. Already that day Clinton had addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, listened to Mother Teresa speak to the same gathering, met privately with her, and crossed town in the presidential motorcade to give the speech at Kramer. Now he was headed back to the White House, and he invited two of us from CHRISTIANITY TODAY to join him for the ride. “I want to talk about the difference between what’s immoral and what should be illegal,” he had said.
At some level, of course, we all make distinctions between the immoral and illegal. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” yet who would suggest codifying that in U.S. statutes? Christians look to the Bible for guidance on morality, but in a pluralistic society, when should our belief in morality translate into laws?
Clinton asserts that he, too, accepts the Bible as his moral authority. At the White House breakfast last fall, he stated forthrightly, “The Bible is the authoritative Word of God and contains all truth.” Yet, he added, “there are people who read the same Bible, have the same convictions about its authority, and draw different conclusions.”
As we rode in the limousine, Clinton cited abortion as an example of an issue on which Christians disagree. “When I was a boy, it was illegal. I remember a motel near where I lived in Hot Springs where a man moved in and ran an abortion clinic. He was arrested, and I had to agree [with the decision].
“When I was a young man, I think I just automatically assumed that life began at birth. In the last seven or eight years, however, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time thinking about this—about the biological reality of how people are formed, about what point in time the various functions develop in an unborn child, about whether it would ever be possible to go beyond the viability tests to make any more sophisticated judgment about personhood—which is really a spiritual determination and not a biological determination.… The truth is, no one knows when the spirit enters the body. I have … read all the scriptural verses cited as authority for the abortion-is-murder thesis, as well as all those verses cited on the other side—what the root words mean and all that stuff. It’s a much graver issue to me now. I think having a child made it so.
“Abortion has now moved beyond the point of serious argument to a shouting match. A lot of pro-lifers in the Christian community think it’s self-evident and not even worth discussing [whether] the Bible clearly says the spirit enters the body at the point of conception.… I’ve heard it argued by dedicated Christian theologians both ways.” Clinton added that abortion should not be done casually: “My position has always been that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.”
Clinton has indeed helped to make abortion safe and legal, but hardly to make it rare. His public statements on the issue have changed dramatically in the past few years, in direct correlation to his national rise to prominence. In 1989, he opposed abortion but said he would allow it in the case of rape and incest or to save the mother’s life. In 1990, he affirmed that abortion should be illegal when the unborn child can live outside the mother’s womb, and he opposed public funding for abortion. Just one year later, in 1991, he said he supported the Roe v. Wade decision.
Clinton defends this shift by saying the approach to specific moral issues in a democracy should change as popular opinion changes. A moral issue should only be made a legal issue if “there is a consensus in the community that is sufficiently overwhelming to bring in the criminal law.” As the consensus has changed on abortion, so has the issue in Clinton’s mind. On many moral issues, in fact, it seems that the Clintons tend to follow rather than lead the public. Hillary Clinton, for example, sought out a minister for spiritual guidance on capital punishment and the Gulf War, and then rejected his counsel mainly on pragmatic grounds—popular support for both policies ran too high.
We talked about the distinctions between morality and legality for 20 minutes in the limousine before continuing the conversation in the Oval Office. Clinton seemed tired, still struggling with laryngitis. He frequently sipped water from a plastic Dixie cup.
A presidential motorcade does not slip quietly through the streets of Washington. At least 16 vehicles were involved: motorcycles, four-wheel-drive Blazers for the Secret Service, vans full of reporters. A police car blocked off every side street, with an officer standing by to enforce the blockade, and at major intersections, clumps of drivers stopped by the motorcade had gathered to wave to the President.
I had come away from my previous meeting impressed by the President’s listening skills. He made excellent eye contact, remembered names and faces, and gave each person the impression of full attention. This time, though, in his own limousine, he appeared to have trouble concentrating. Although we were talking over matters of great moral—and explosive political—significance, Clinton was looking left and right, searching out every last clump of bystanders to wave to. His aides had told me this Clinton trademark causes scheduling nightmares for his handlers: he never leaves a hand unshaken, a crowd unaddressed, a baby unkissed. He is a consummate politician.
Two hours before, we had both been present for Mother Teresa’s speech. It was a remarkable event. The Clintons and the Gores sat at elevated head tables on either side of the podium. Rolled out in a wheelchair, the frail, 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate needed help to stand up. A special platform had been positioned to allow her to see over the podium. Even so, hunched over, four-feet, six-inches tall, she could barely reach the microphone. She spoke clearly and slowly with a thick accent in a voice that managed to fill the hall nevertheless.
Mother Teresa said that America has become a selfish nation, in danger of losing the proper meaning of love: “giving until it hurts.” Both contraception and abortion, she said, distort love. “If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other?… Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.” She proposed a simple solution for those pregnant women who don’t want their children: “Please give me the child. I want it. I will care for it.” Already she has placed three thousand children with families in Calcutta.
Mother Teresa filled her talk with poignant stories of people she has ministered to, and no one who heard her could go away unmoved. President Clinton himself brought up her stories in our conversation. Mother Teresa, like saints and prophets before her, sees the world in stark, binary terms. In her talk, she managed to reduce the abortion controversy to its simplest moral terms: life or death, love or rejection. Ten feet away from her sat Bill Clinton, a politician stuck with the practical details of implementing policy on a contentious moral issue. When does human life begin? What moral laws should we impose on a pluralistic society? How do you get people who care so much about unborn babies to care also about the full-term babies born in certain neighborhoods and countries?
Indeed, from the perspective of the presidential motorcade—flags flapping from the antennae, police sirens blaring, streets blocked, the press pool reporting in on cellular phones—everything looked very complicated. As our interview progressed, the simple clarity of Mother Teresa’s address, which had obviously touched Bill Clinton, seemed to be slipping away.
It occurred to me that Mother Teresa probably would not make a very good politician: she would have little patience with public relations, compromise, and writing regulations. Likewise, in a political system where you never stop running for office, Bill Clinton would not make a very good saint.
As we talked about these moral issues—human lives—even as we reflected on Mother Teresa’s stirring words from that morning, Clinton’s eyes scanned the sidewalks, looking for people to wave to. As a politician, he would take his cues from the crowd.
Paul Brand is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Now in semiretirement, he serves as clinical professor emeritus, Department of Orthopedics, at the University of Washington and consults for the World Health Organization. His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him many awards and honors.
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