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Vaught still credited with shaping Clinton’s pro-abortion views despite pro

WASHINGTON (BP)–The late W.O. Vaught continues to receive credit in the news media for influencing President Clinton’s support for abortion rights, even though the longtime pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., spoke against the practice from the pulpit.
Clinton’s contention that Vaught told him the Bible did not prohibit abortion was reported in the national news media during the Arkansas governor’s 1992 campaign for the Democratic nomination and the presidency. It basically has gone unchallenged in the mainstream media since and most recently resurfaced in a year-end piece written for the Scripps Howard News Service.
Scripps Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly reported in his piece for Dec. 26 that the Religion Newswriters Association had selected the Clinton sex-and-lies scandal, with “its undercurrents of sin, confession and forgiveness,” as the top religion story of 1998. In his column, which he writes weekly, Mattingly wondered if the president ever asked Vaught, whom Clinton considered a spiritual mentor, about the biblical teaching on adultery and some sexual acts. Even after his admission of an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the president has said his actions with her did not constitute “sexual relations.”
In pondering whether the men ever discussed the biblical view of adultery and sex, Mattingly reported the Southern Baptist pastor had helped Clinton on the issues of the death penalty and abortion. Clinton joined Immanuel in 1980, according to church records, while Vaught was pastor.
On capital punishment, Vaught told Clinton the Bible did not prohibit it, Mattingly reported. On abortion, Vaught said “personhood begins with the first breath, because the Bible says life was literally breathed into man at creation. This helped the governor decide that abortion wasn’t murder,” Mattingly wrote.
In June 1992, David Maraniss of The Washington Post wrote an article on Clinton’s religious background in which he reported the then-Democratic presidential candidate’s views on capital punishment and abortion “were formed after consultation with a minister who instructed him directly from Scripture, telling him it prohibited neither and that he should make his own judgment.”
Clinton told Maraniss, “[Vaught] read the meaning of life and birth and personhood in words which literally meant ‘to breathe life into,’ so he thought the most literal meaning of life in the Bible would be to conclude that it began at birth. It didn’t mean that it was right all the time or that it wasn’t immoral, but he didn’t think you could say it was murder.”
By the time Clinton became a national candidate, Vaught had died of cancer. Only Clinton remained to report what they might have discussed about the biblical view of abortion and other matters. A complicating factor is Clinton’s widespread notoriety during the 1992 campaign for using crafty statements and evasive answers to defend himself. This tendency was shown in his response to questions about his military draft status, marijuana use and allegations of adultery. This criticism of Clinton has continued throughout his presidency, which is threatened by an impeachment trial in the Senate, partly on charges of making false statements to a grand jury.
Vaught, who died in 1989, served as Immanuel’s pastor for 38 years before retiring in 1983. While he no longer was alive by 1992 to report what he told Clinton in private, he left some public record of his comments on abortion. In a sermon he preached in December 1981 from Immanuel’s pulpit, Vaught explained his view of God forming the first man, as recorded in Genesis 2:7.
“The body was formed first, … then God breathed in soul and spirit,” Vaught said, according to an audio recording and transcript provided by Immanuel’s tape ministry. “Now don’t get mad at me. I have people get mad at me every time I say this. And every time a baby is born, God repeats this.
“The little baby is formed in the mother’s body and is an extension of her soul and her spirit and the soul and the spirit of the father. And the father and mother have entered into a compact with God, and they have become creators together. And they form the little body, and when the breath — like when breath hit the body of Adam that God had made, he became a living soul — when the breath hits the body of the little baby, God gives life to that baby at that minute, and he becomes an individual on his own.”
Vaught continued by saying, “Now the reason people get mad at me is because they think I am saying that if before that breath hits the body you want to have an abortion that it’s perfectly all right. Well, it is not all right. It is not all right. The second you enter into that creative act with God, you are a part of being a creator, and it’s a sacred thing. And nobody has a right to have an abortion. But if the mother’s life is at stake, then an abortion should be performed and the mother should be saved. I know that’s right. I know that’s right; there is nothing in the Bible against that.”
The 1981 sermon was not the only time Vaught taught this view of the beginning of life nor the only time he said abortion was wrong, a former associate pastor at Immanuel told Baptist Press in the fall of 1992.
“I have heard him make reference to this on more than one occasion,” said Charles Barfield, an associate pastor at Immanuel for 18 years. Barfield served with Vaught for seven of those years.
Every time Vaught would teach this, he would say the “baby being formed is precious, it is sacred life,” Barfield said. “He would never say it justifies abortion. I never heard Dr. Vaught express any approval of abortion.
“I don’t know what Dr. Vaught said to [Clinton], and I don’t know if he misinterpreted what Dr. Vaught said or what.”
Also in a 1992 interview with BP, Rex Horne, who has served as Immanuel’s pastor since 1990, said, “I have nothing but respect for the teaching and preaching ministry of Dr. Vaught. I am sure that he would not encourage abortion.”
While Vaught’s 1981 sermon allowed for abortion if the mother’s life were in danger, his position was far from that demonstrated by Clinton since he took office in 1993. In his first week in the White House, Clinton rescinded restrictions on abortion established in the Reagan and Bush administrations. He has opposed any limitations on abortion rights. Clinton twice has vetoed legislation that would have outlawed a gruesome abortion technique normally performed in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy on a partially delivered child, even though some pro-choice advocates favored the bill.
Horne, who is opposed to abortion and says he has shared those convictions with Clinton, said in ’92 he did not “lean toward” Vaught’s teaching on the beginning of life.
It is an unusual one.
Vaught’s teaching is “not very common at all,” Southern Baptist theologian David Dockery told BP in 1992. “I don’t know of a Baptist theologian anywhere that would hold to Vaught’s view.
“I think the predominant evangelical view is that both the material and immaterial part of the human are created in the procreation process. So we become what we are, body and spirit, at conception. The soul is not something that’s added to the body later on.”
Dockery is president of Union University, a Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. At the time of the interview, he was vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
BP conducted telephone interviews with Barfield, Horne and Dockery in the fall of 1992. This is the first time their comments from those interviews have been published.
In December, Clinton became only the second United States president to be impeached. He is being tried in the Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for seeking to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky.
In his column, Mattingly quoted Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz in response to Clinton’s contention oral sex performed on him does not constitute “sexual relations” by him.
“Perhaps we should just say that Clinton is being very literal — legalistic even — about how he reads the Bible, when it serves his purposes to do so,” said Grenz, a professor at Vancouver’s Regent College and author of “Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective.”
“It’s true that the Bible may not clearly address each and every kind of sexual act,” Grenz said. “But if Clinton is using that as a justification to split hairs, then he has simply missed the spirit of everything the Scriptures have to say about marriage and sex.”
In a letter from Clinton read by Horne at the close of a Sunday morning service in October, the president “expressed repentance for his actions, sadness for the consequences of his sin on his family, friends and church family, and asked forgiveness from Immanuel,” the pastor said in a brief written statement.
Clinton’s letter was not released, and no audio tape was made when it was read, a church staff member said. BP was unable to learn if Clinton cited the sin or sins for which he sought forgiveness.
Mattingly’s religion column is quite popular, Scripps Howard managing editor Peter Copeland told BP. The news service has a potential audience of about 30 million subscribers through the newspapers it owns or serves, Copeland said. Scripps Howard owns 19 newspapers, including the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. About 400 other newspapers subscribe to the news service.