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Faith In the White House

President Clinton appears to be a man who craves acceptance and is spiritually needy, but at the same time is big into self-justification.

Faith In the White House

On inauguration day, 1997, Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, faced the president during a prayer service and praised "the wisdom and the leadership and the vision in your life the last four years." Mr. Hybels lauded "the development of your heart, your increasing desire to know God, and to live for him ..."

Mr. Hybels wanted Mr. Clinton to know "to the depths of your being that you are loved by God. And, not incidentally, by many, many of us." Many, many evangelicals have not cheered President Clinton. WORLD has criticized his promotion of abortion, homosexuality, and other anti-biblical practices; we are also astounded by levels of corruption even greater than those of the notorious Grant and Harding administrations. But Christians are commanded to pray for those in authority over us, and to do so it is useful to understand Mr. Clinton's self-expressed spiritual needs, as he has communicated them to several leaders identified as evangelicals who have been meeting with the president over the past four years.

The following is an account of one such meeting, as conveyed by two of the participants in it. Words spoken at the meeting are in italics rather than quotation marks, because they represent later recollections rather than exact quotations noted at the time.

Four church leaders—Rex Horne from Immanuel Baptist in Little Rock, Tony Campolo from Eastern College, Gordon MacDonald from Grace Chapel in Massachusetts, dressed in coats and ties, and Mr. Hybels, in a sweater—sat in the private study on the second floor of the White House one evening late in November, 1994. Two others—the president of the United States, in a sweater, and a presidential aide—were with them.

President Clinton had called in the four because he was in not only a political funk but a spiritual one as well. Voters had just repudiated him by voting in a Republican Congress. Pundits were saying that the president could look forward only to two miserable years in a castrated White House, and then involuntary retirement. All in all, a bad month, and Mr. Clinton was perhaps hoping for balm at the end of the tunnel.

The men exchanged pleasantries, and then the meeting turned to a discussion of the problems the president was having in gaining acceptance among evangelical Christians. One of the church leaders told him, Most of our people are conservative Republicans. They ask me a very simple question: Is the president a good man? What can you tell us that would convince them that you're a good man?

Mr. Clinton reacted strongly and explained that he was trying to be a good man. The church leader stood his ground: Are you a good man? What do I tell my people? And the president continued to insist, without going into specifics, that he was good. There was a standoff. Then one participant said quietly, I don't think any of us can say that, that we're good; he had in mind the biblical understanding that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

Mr. Clinton, however, responded politically, arguing that some Republicans were trying to bring him down, and that their methods were often unfair and evil. Another of the church leaders then said, You're worried about people out there to get you. Let me remind you that after you were elected, if you had called together a group of five evangelical experts to say, what five things could you do to infuriate people, you couldn't have come out with a better list than what you did. Mr. Clinton responded by arguing that the Republicans had "trapped" him into defining at the beginning of his term policies on homosexuals in the military that he had not planned to deal with at that time.

One participant recalls that the fervency of evangelical opposition to Mr. Clinton on the abortion and homosexuality issues "was mystifying" to the president, who displayed "feelings of hurt ... very raw nerve endings." The meeting was scheduled to last an hour, as Mr. Clinton was scheduled to meet with a group of governors, but it stretched to about 90 minutes. At 8 p.m. Mr. Clinton said he had to go but wanted to resume the meeting later that evening. The church leaders went to a nearby restaurant and came back at about 10; part two of the meeting lasted until after midnight. At one point in the late-night discussion, one of the church leaders recalls, "the president started up again with they, they, they. We kept saying, We're focusing on you." But there was no real resolution.

Since then Mr. Clinton has met with other church leaders; one participant says the goal has been "to help him sort out what the Bible says about the role of government leaders and how he can become the kind of person and president that God wants for him to be."

What should WORLD readers make of such meetings?

First, they should know that the discussions have continued, although on a one-to-one rather than a group basis. For instance, Mr. Hybels has been meeting with the president on a regular monthly schedule since then, and Mr. Campolo about every 1-1/2 months on an irregular schedule. We should pray that such meetings will have an impact on Mr. Clinton as he decides whether to veto once again the partial-birth abortion bill and other measures. We also should pray for good counsel in the lives of all those in authority, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and other congressional leaders.

Second, the church leaders deserve credit for trying to continue that evening's emphasis on maintaining a Christian sense of charity even while dodging political flak. Mr. Campolo says concerning his conversations with the president, "I ask him, `Do you pray for your political enemies?' I say, `If I was in your shoes, I'd think seriously about what the Bible says about how to avoid bitterness, how to avoid pettiness.' I talk to him about what it means to be a Christian father and a Christian husband." What Mr. Campolo says to Mr. Clinton is good advice for Christians generally. We should pray that the president should avoid bitterness and pettiness, and we should pray the same for all of us. We should pray for Mr. Clinton in his calling as father and husband, and those of us who are parents and spouses should pray for grace in our own lives as well.

Third, Mr. Campolo has an interesting take on Mr. Clinton's spiritual walk: "The idea that someone has to tell him what the gospel is about, is silly. "But living it out—that's the question. He's a man struggling to figure out, do I play the game according to the Democratic Party or do I live out my commitments to the kingdom? Sometimes these are in conflict." Mr. Campolo sees Mr. Clinton as buffeted by three forces—his political allegiances, his sense of responsibility as president, and his personal convictions—and "which one of those dominates varies at any particular time." But Mr. Campolo speaks very positively of the president:

  • "His ability to change in pursuing policies that affect Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia are to his credit. He chooses a course of action that seems right and if he senses that his decisions turned out to be wrong, he is more than willing to face up to that and change direction."
  • "His position toward gays and lesbians is right. On the one hand he upholds traditional marriage. On the other hand, he believes that gay and lesbian people should be protected from discrimination and from a homophobic-based hate."
  • On abortion, evangelicals "have failed to either convince him or the majority of the American people of the rightness of where we stand. Most Americans want abortion to be legal but rare. That is where the president stands."

WORLD over the past four years has shown many times how the Clinton administration has undercut both traditional marriage and pro-life attempts to make abortion rare. Significantly, the administration has changed course at times in foreign policy but has consistently supported special rights for homosexuals and for abortionists. But Mr. Campolo's bottom line is, "Bill Clinton is a friend. I both believe in him and defend him. I do not know any of the secrets of his past and he doesn't know secrets of mine. I believe that he is presently trying to be a good man and is seeking a close relationship with God."

Skeptics, however, have argued that the president in 1995 and 1996 was primarily seeking a closer relationship with the evangelical segment of the American electorate. In 1994 Fred Barnes, now executive editor of The Weekly Standard, proposed that a gain of 20 percent of the evangelical bloc could signal a Clinton victory in 1996. In 1994 also, University of Akron political scientist John Green predicted that Mr. Clinton at the most could get a mid-30 percent share of the evangelical vote, but if he could do that well among "a prime Republican constituency, he'd be cutting off GOP chances at the knees."

Mr. Clinton ended up meeting the outside expectations of most pundits and political scientists: He gained about a third of the evangelical vote, helped by photo opportunities and religious phraseology throughout 1995 and 1996. Here's an Associated Press photo and caption from June 6,1995: "Heavenly run: President Clinton, right, and the Rev. Bill Hybels, a minister from Chicago, pausing outside the North Portico of the White House on Monday to chat and pray after their jog." Just before election day last year, a USA Today headline read, "Clinton: Active spirituality."

The gaining of political advantage does not mean that Mr. Clinton's desire to feel himself a good person is not genuine. Tony Campolo says that the president's faith has grown since he entered the White House, and notes frequent Clinton references to Abraham Lincoln's growth in spirituality as president: "He says it so often, one cannot help but infer that he sees a parallel in his own life."

ABC's Peggy Wehmeyer summarized well the way publicized meetings helped the president both electorally and psychologically: "Courting the evangelicals can only help Clinton politically. He also gets the gratification of knowing some accept him as a man of faith." Mr. Clinton has looked for such gratification not only from those who profess faith in Christ, but from others, such as Tony Robbins, who have faith in self-esteem. In theology as in politics, the president seems able to pick a little of this and a little of that. What is clear amid the swirling words is that Bill Clinton, hoping for affirmative answers to his question—Am I a good man?—has always tried to be good, in various ways.

The biography of Mr. Clinton by Washington Post writer David Marannis quotes the president explaining why he had consistent church attendance as a child: It was important "to try to be a good person." That desire stayed with Mr. Clinton through his teenage years, but at Georgetown University he apparently began defining "good" differently. Mr. Campolo has known the president since 1993; he asserts that Mr. Clinton "was a very serious Christian during his teenage years, but may have gotten away from the Lord from the time he was 19 through his governorship ... He may have personally strayed away from his earlier convictions for a period of time, but America has not come down hard on him because most people have gone through that."

When did that "strayed away" period end? Some say 1980, when voters ousted him from the governorship after one term. Time in 1993 quoted Betsey Wright, Mr. Clinton's longtime chief of staff in Arkansas, as saying, "People overlook what a traumatic occurrence that defeat was. Getting himself into a church family was very important in terms of overcoming what he regarded as his own personal failure." Others, perhaps keeping in mind allegations concerning Mr. Clinton's personal and official conduct during his decade-long return to the governorship, argue that Mr. Clinton's spiritual rebirth took place only when he entered the White House.

Tony Campolo says of the president, "He got through Arkansas on charm and intelligence, and not until he came to the White House did he become aware that he needed far more than that." The requirements of the presidency, Mr. Campolo says, have changed Mr. Clinton, who talks of "how the turmoil of the Civil War drove Lincoln to his knees, in the realization that the task was beyond him and he needed help from God. When Bill Clinton became president, he very quickly became aware that the job was beyond him too, and that he needed divine support."

Mr. Campolo expects to continue as a firm supporter of the president. What would change his mind? If Mr. Clinton were engaged in adultery while in the White House, "that would upset me to no end," but Mr. Campolo is convinced that rumors to that effect are unfounded. President watchers analyze political twists and turns, but the psychology of church involvement of some kind appears to be as important to Mr. Clinton now as it was when he grew up in Arkansas. He told Peggy Wehmeyer in her 1994 ABC interview, "I do not believe I could do my job as president, much less continue to try to grow as a person, in the absence of my faith in God." Mr. Clinton went on to say that his faith "provides a solace and support in the face of all these problems that I sometimes am not smart enough to solve."

His emphasis on solace and support, not God's sovereign grace and clear teaching, are noteworthy. So is his difficulty in confessing sin. Because Mr. Clinton needs to think of himself as a good person working within God's circle, the spiritual support he receives from those within his political circle is crucial. One evening late in November 1994 a dejected president received solace and support, but also some challenge. He appreciated the balm; did he hear the challenge? More important, could he have heard the challenge?

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.