WASHINGTON (BP)–When Daniel Vestal of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship commended Bill Clinton’s faith after the most recent White House breakfast for religious leaders, he joined a list of Christian leaders who have expressed assurance of the president’s salvation despite an accumulation of policies and behavior that appear to conflict with that profession.
Vestal, coordinator of the shadow denomination at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was “an inspiring experience to be in the White House” in September and described Clinton as “obviously a person of faith and a committed Christian,” according to Associated Baptist Press. Vestal sat at the same table with Clinton, a Southern Baptist church member, ABP reported.
Such declarations have occurred at various times before and during Clinton’s two terms as president, especially in the early days of his administration. Those who have made such assertions include evangelical leaders Jack Hayford and Roberta Hestenes, as well as CBF-related Baptists James Dunn and Robert Parham.
Those pronouncements have elicited skepticism and, in various quarters, a sense of betrayal from some evangelicals and Southern Baptists, especially when contrasted with what has become a Clinton legacy of not even maintaining the status quo but advancing abortion and homosexual rights.
On the one hand, Clinton, as president, has the following as part of his record:
— Vetoed twice a congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, a procedure inflicted upon an almost totally delivered child normally in the fifth or six month of pregnancy.
— Proclaimed June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month the last two years, becoming the first president to issue such a proclamation and declaring in the text he was proud of his administration’s record on homosexual rights.
— Rescinded five pro-life policies from previous administrations on his third day in office in 1993.
— Appointed more open homosexuals to senior administration posts than any previous president.
— Opened the door, as part of his actions in January 1993, for the importation of the French abortion pill RU 486, which was approved in September by the Food and Drug Administration.
— Issued an executive order in 1998 banning discrimination in the federal civilian workforce based on “sexual orientation,” a category that includes homosexuality, and thereby equating it with other protected classes such as race, gender and age.
— Proposed health-care legislation that would have included abortion as part of a basic benefits package and would have required Americans to pay for it.
Clinton’s policy record has been accompanied, meanwhile, by a personal life marked by such publicly reported chapters as adulterous liaisons with a young intern in the White House and the dishonesty he invoked to cover them. In addition, a Clinton biographer, Washington Post writer David Maraniss, wrote when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke: “It is undeniable that Clinton has had an active extramarital sex life since he married his wife in 1975 — Clinton himself has admitted as much, and friends have privately confirmed it.”
On the other hand, Clinton says he became a Christian as a boy. He has been a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., for about two decades and has attended worship regularly during that time. He has shared aspects of his religious faith in public and private throughout his presidency. After he acknowledged an improper relationship with Lewinsky following nearly eight months of denials, Clinton called what he did sin and began regular accountability sessions with three ministers, popular speaker Tony Campolo, evangelical author and pastor Gordon MacDonald and Philip Wogoman, a Methodist pastor in Washington.
One pastor who did not make a sweeping pronouncement was Ed Dobson, pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. Dobson was a leading official with the now-defunct Moral Majority but has been critical in recent years of the involvement of Christian conservatives in politics.
After a White House meeting, Dobson told Christianity Today in 1994 he did not know if Clinton is a Christian. Dobson said he believed Clinton to be “more deeply spiritual than any president we’ve had in recent years.”
Dobson asked and answered his own follow-up question: “How can I reconcile Bill Clinton’s faith with his policies? I can’t.”
Some Christian leaders have not been as cautious about verifying the Christian faith of the president.
Hayford, a popular radio/television preacher and pastor of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., told members of the church after an October 1993 meeting at the White House, according to a report in National Review magazine: “I know that I was talking to a brother in Christ that I’m glad the Lord allowed me to serve in a small way.”
After the same meeting, Hestenes, then president of Eastern College, told the now-defunct National and International Religion Report, “I’m absolutely convinced of his deep and sincere faith. He knows his Bible.”
Dunn commented at various times on Clinton’s spiritual life while he was still executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. In 1994, Dunn told The Washington Post, “Mr. Clinton has an intensely personal faith that he applies in public and private to social issues. He has a Christian baseline from which he operates.”
Even before Clinton was elected for the first time in 1992, Parham, director of the CBF-related Baptist Center for Ethics, described the then-governor of Arkansas and his running mate, Al Gore, as “politicians with authentic Christian faith.”
One evangelical leader who has counseled the president and has gone to bat for him faced rebuke from members of his own church recently.
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, interviewed Clinton for 75 minutes during a leadership conference at the suburban Chicago church in August, less than a week before the start of the Democratic National Convention. During the interview, Clinton promoted the good deeds of Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee.
In the session, Hybels rejected claims the president had not confessed his adultery, saying to Clinton, “You gave one of the most clear confessional statements that I have ever heard,” according to a report on the Christianity Today website.
Ten days after Clinton’s appearance, however, about 600 church members gathered at an open forum with Hybels and six elders. Many expressed disappointment with Hybels and asked why he invited a president with such a record on moral issues to the church, according to a separate report on the Christianity Today site.
“This is a man who is the chief-most champion of infanticide and gay lifestyles,” one member said, according to the article.
“I need further explanation on this,” a man said. “How do I understand that Bill Clinton has still not repented on abortion?”
Hybels, a leader of the seeker-church movement, said he and the elders invited Clinton for several reasons, including a desire to change the attitude many evangelicals have toward the president and to help Clinton in his spiritual journey.
“I keep wondering what someone could become. I still think he can be restored to full spiritual health one day,” Hybels said.
One comment affected Hybels the most, he said later, according to the report.
“His journey became more important than our church unity,” a member of 21 years said.
Hybels admitted to the members, “I probably was willing to risk more than we should have.”