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Newsweek article: Baptist moderates laid groundwork for Clinton morality

WASHINGTON (BP)–Some doctrines championed by moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention provided President Clinton with license for his scandalous sexual behavior, an article in Newsweek contends, but current SBC leaders say such teaching is neither typical of the denomination nor biblical.
In a piece titled, “Sex, Sin and Salvation” in the Nov. 2 issue of the weekly newsmagazine, religion writer Kenneth Woodward says the president’s sexual behavior, and his refusal to describe his activities with White House intern Monica Lewinsky as either “sexual relations” or adultery, cannot be understood “without grasping the nuances of his Baptist upbringing.”
While some conservative SBC leaders have called for Clinton to resign since he admitted in August misleading his family and the public about what he described as an improper relationship with Lewinsky, more moderate Southern Baptists “see Clinton as both a flawed follower of Christ and an exemplary Baptist president,” Woodward writes.
The article chronicles Clinton’s public profession of faith in 1956 and his involvement in Sunday school and choir at Park Place Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Ark. As president, he has consistently supported abortion rights and opposed vouchers for religious schools, in keeping with the position of SBC leaders during his youth, Woodward writes. His “troubled personal life — and his repeated verbal evasions — also bears a distinctive Baptist stamp,” according to the article.
Woodward quotes Foy Valentine, former head of the SBC’s former Christian Life Commission; Glenn Hinson, former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, to explain his contention that moderate Baptists’ emphasis on such teachings as soul competency gave license for Clinton’s behavior.
Referring to Clinton’s nationally televised admission in August, Hinson is quoted as saying, “When the president told the nation that his problems were between himself, his family and ‘our God,’ that was a very Baptist statement.” Hinson now is a professor at the moderate-backed Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.
Of the contention Baptists have no creeds, Woodward quotes Dunn as saying, “The only Baptist creed is, ‘Ain’t nobody but Jesus goin’ to tell me what to believe.”
The article says, “For full-blooded youths like the adolescent Clinton, these Baptist doctrines offered considerable room for maneuvering through the sexual revolution of the 1960s. … What Jesus seemed to be telling imaginative Baptist teenagers was that they could work out their own personal rules, permitting some forms of sexual experience without feeling guilty.
“Clinton’s adult sexual behavior fits this adolescent pattern,” Woodward writes.
The article says many of Clinton’s “coreligionists believe the president spoke Baptist truth when he testified that he did not have ‘sex’ with” Lewinsky.
In the quote sure to be most noteworthy to Southern Baptists, Wooward quotes Valentine as denying the president’s activity with the intern constitutes adultery.
“What he did is disgusting, but not what I would consider adultery,” Valentine said. “And I think that most Baptists would agree.” Valentine was executive director of the CLC from 1960-87.
Two SBC leaders, Richard Land and R. Albert Mohler Jr., said they do not agree with Valentine’s pronouncement and said most Southern Baptists would not either.
In a commentary written in response to the Newsweek piece, Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, Louisville, Ky., said the conservative resurgence of the SBC’s last 20 years demonstrates “that Valentine is spectacularly incompetent at knowing what most Baptists believe.”
Valentine’s comment “indicates that he is eager to accept the president’s argument that sex short of intercourse is not adultery. For Southern Baptists wondering if the conservative recovery was necessary, what more evidence could be necessary?” Mohler wrote.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, formerly the CLC, said in an interview, “I can say with absolute certainty that Foy Valentine is in a dry creek bed a long way from the Southern Baptist mainstream when he says that President Clinton’s behavior with Ms. Lewinsky was not adultery.
“The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists, then and now, including former President Jimmy Carter, understand that Jesus has given us the timeless and definitive definition of adultery in Matthew 5:28, and clearly Mr. Clinton lusted in his heart and thus committed adultery by Jesus’ standard, and for most Southern Baptists that has always made any other standard meaningless and irrelevant,” Land said.
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus said whoever “looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Carter, a Southern Baptist, admitted in a famous response during an interview in the 1970s with Playboy magazine to lusting after other women than his wife.
Valentine, contacted by Baptist Press the morning of Oct. 30, was not available for comment, saying he was en route to an out-of-town appointment.
“I think it’s true that the liberal antinomianism represented by James Dunn, Glenn Hinson and Foy Valentine is partially responsible for producing people with the tragically flawed moral compass of a Bill Clinton,” Land said. “The problem with Woodward’s article is that it leaves the impression that such a laissez faire, antinomian moral spirit is normative in Southern Baptist life. It isn’t normative now, and it wasn’t normative then.
“I am the same age as Bill Clinton,” Land said, “and it was not an influential part of the Southern Baptist universe that I and millions of other Southern Baptists of my generation inhabited.”
Land, who expressed appreciation for Valentine’s courageous leadership on race relations, said he was warned of Valentine’s liberalism as a 16-year-old in Training Union at his church in Houston.
Mohler, who pointed out the SBC had a pro-choice position on abortion under Valentine’s leadership before the conservative transformation, wrote the Newsweek article “serves as an indictment of the generation of moderate and liberal Baptist leaders who served as Bill Clinton’s moral advisors — and are now his enablers in a lifestyle of gross immorality and irresponsibility. Years of theological compromise led to the collapse of any moral sense of gravity within SBC leadership as typified by Dunn, Hinson and Valentine. The theological recovery of the last two decades started with the issue of biblical authority and inerrancy — but quickly spread to the recovery of biblical positions on ethical and moral issues as well.
“Southern Baptist will have to live with the tragic memory of these chapters in our denominational history,” Mohler wrote. “The nation is now living with the grotesque reality of a morally bankrupt presidency. Newsweek has demonstrated conclusively the kind of theological and spiritual influences that produce a Bill Clinton.”
Mohler’s comments were made in a column he writes periodically on theology and culture under the title “Fidelitas.” A shortened version of the commentary has been forwarded to World magazine, for which Mohler writes a column.
Clinton is a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., but attends Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. Immanuel’s pastor, Rex Horne, reported he read a letter from the president to the congregation Oct. 18 asking forgiveness of the church’s members.
Art Toalston contributed to this article.