WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bill Clinton, speaking at a breakfast for about 100 religious leaders, called on churches to help make welfare reform successful by providing for the employment of needy people.
The president also asked the ecumenical gathering to help solve the problems surrounding immigration, and he declared the society is returning to its basic values.
Clinton’s comments came at a prayer breakfast which has become an annual tradition since the late summer of 1993, his first year in the White House. Included in the audience were some Southern Baptists, other evangelicals and Baptists, Roman Catholics, representatives of mainline Protestant denominations, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i leaders.
Acknowledging some at the breakfast thought he “made a mistake” in signing the Republican-backed welfare reform bill, Clinton said his objective “is, once and for all, to take the politics out of poverty and to treat all able-bodied people the same at the community level.”
The president said, “This new law gives every state the right to give the welfare check to any employer, including a church, as an employment and training subsidy, who will hire someone from welfare. If every church in America just hired one family, the welfare problem would go way down. If every church in America challenged every member of that church who had 25 or more employees to hire another family, the problem would go away … .”
Legal immigration, he said, has produced an America in which its largest county, Los Angeles County, has more than 160 racial and ethnic groups.
Given the ethnic and religious conflicts in other countries of the world, how can Americans prove “that we can all get along — without giving up our basic beliefs but in finding a ground of mutual respect? It seems to me that that may be the single most significant decision facing the United States,” Clinton said.
He asked the religious leaders for help “in creating a sense of reconciliation” in dealing with welfare reform and immigration, as well as other issues.
Americans “are proving that we’re getting back to our basic values,” Clinton said, citing a drop in the crime rate and the teenage pregnancy rate, while admitting drug use among young people is increasing. “So, we’re on the cusp, here, maybe, of turning a lot of our social problems around.”
A Southern Baptist agency representative at the breakfast expressed gratitude for the president’s request of religious leaders but said his focus was too narrow.
“I think it is important and good for our president to call upon religious leaders to do everything in their power to minister to the poor, to seek reconciliation and to foster a better spirit in our society,” said Will Dodson, the Christian Life Commission’s director of government relations. “However, we can never agree to focus only upon those issues on which most people agree but ignore other critical issues simply because they are divisive. It would be wrong for the church to ignore addressing divisive issues such as the sanctity of human life and sexual immorality in its many forms out of fear that doing so will offend a large segment of our society.
“Cooperation and reconciliation must never mean that the church compromises its mission to urge people to righteous living by turning from sin and by turning to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. To many, that message is antagonistic and divisive. Nevertheless, if we care about a lost and dying world and a society which at its core needs to repent of its sin and turn to God, then that is the message that we must proclaim.”
Dodson also disagreed with Clinton’s assessment American society is returning to its basic values.
“I wish I could agree with this statement,” Dodson said. “However, it seems to me that we are drifting farther and farther away from basic moral values and closer to God’s judgment for our stiff-necked refusal to turn from our sin and let Christ be Lord of our lives.”
Rex Horne, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., where Clinton is a member, attended, as did James Dunn, the Baptist Joint Committee’s executive director; Jimmy Allen, SBC president in 1978 and ’79, and Brian Harbour, pastor of First Baptist Church, Richardson, Texas. Harbour formerly was Clinton’s pastor at Immanuel Church in
Others attending the breakfast were two of evangelist Billy Graham’s children, popular Bible teacher Anne Graham Lotz and evangelist Franklin Graham; National Association of Evangelicals President Don Argue; popular, and often controversial, evangelical speaker/author Tony Campolo; and Washington Cardinal James Hickey, who has criticized the president’s support of abortion.