Clinton urges respect with conservatives

ATLANTA (BP)--Former President Bill Clinton's exhortation to moderate Baptists: Treat conservative Baptists with humility, love and respect "because all of us might be wrong."

Clinton, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., in addressing the closing session of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration Feb. 1, noted, "We came here to seek a covenant of reconciliation."

Clinton referred to what he called an awakening in the 1970s and 1980s among Baptists of all political stripes to the admonition in the Book of James that people would know their faith by their works.

"The conservatives took over the Baptist convention," Clinton said at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. "They believed that to show their faith by their works they had to become more political on issues of abortion, women's role in the church, gay rights and a whole host of other issues.

"Those of us who disagreed were horrified when President [Jimmy] Carter was once asked to abandon his secular humanism. We thought he was a pretty good example of a devout Baptist and a faithful follower of Christ," Clinton said to applause.

Clinton described New Baptist Covenant attendees, although in "high spirits," as also having "heavy hearts" because they sense there is something wrong when Baptists have drifted so far apart from each other.

"Most of us here found our feelings and our thoughts articulated more clearly than we otherwise could have by President Carter's book, 'Our Endangered Values.' We believe that the most important thing is an individual's relationship with God through Christ," Clinton said.

The former president said he was saddened by "the reaction of this meeting to some people who have accused it of being a veiled agenda for liberals, whatever that is."

"I respect Rev. [Frank] Page," Clinton said, referring to the president of the Southern Baptist Convention who had voiced caution about the gathering. "I was glad when he was elected president of the convention, and I've had some good conversations with him."

Clinton said he could spend his time at the New Baptist Covenant touting his efforts at reducing climate change and curbing the spread of AIDS, but he noted: "We all do what we can, and we all believe we are fulfilling God's will in our lives. The point that I want to make is: So do they." Conservatives, Clinton said, "read the obligations of the Scripture in a different way."

Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, was president of the Southern Baptist Convention when Clinton became president, and Clinton spent several minutes in his address recounting a breakfast meeting he had with Young and former Vice President Al Gore on the Truman Balcony of the White House in the early '90s.

"Al engaged him in an issue debate. He said, 'You know I love my Baptist roots, but I have three daughters and a son, and I don't think it's right that only my son can become a minister.' So they argued about that," Clinton said.

The former president said he likes Young, admires his sermons and watches him preach on television every chance he gets. But he didn't appreciate a question Young asked him that day.

"He looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. Just answer me yes or no. Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no?'

"I said, 'Rev. Young, I think it is completely true, but I do not believe you or I or any other living person is wise enough to understand it completely,'" Clinton recounted to applause. "He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.'"

Clinton said the most important verse in the New Testament for Christians to read when looking for guidance on how to relate to other people is 1 Corinthians 13:12, the verse that precedes the often-quoted verse 13: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

"I said, 'Why could that [love] possibly be more important than faith when the Baptists preach that belief in Jesus is the key to salvation? What could Paul have possibly been talking about?'" Clinton said.

"... The reason why we have to put love above everything else is because we see through a glass darkly and know in part," he said. "Therefore, it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true because we know in part, we see through a glass darkly. Humility is the order of the day. The reason we have to love each other is because all of us might be wrong."

Moderate Baptists should redouble their efforts at serving the poor, the sick and the needy and at bringing a divided and broken world together, the former president said.

But, he said to applause, "We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us or even how they treat people that we care for. If there is any chance, any chance, that this covenant can become an embracing one, that there can once again be a whole community, it has to be the chance of love, the chance that we might not give up our differences but find that our common humanity matters more."

Clinton said he does not think the rift among Baptists that developed over decades can be mended in a day or a week or a year, and he called it a journey.

"If we want them to take a journey with us, we have to do two things. We have to find things we can do together. And we have to treat them with respect and honor and believe that they think they're right just as strongly as we do," he said, adding that moderates must "approach those who disagree with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist."

In closing, Clinton said, "No matter what condemnation is leveled at this movement, you must respond with the spirit of love. You must find something to do -- something, surely there is something we can do together -- and we must say to them, 'We respect your view, but we can not accept it, not because we know whether the Bible is literally true, but because it's hard enough for us to find out who said what, when, the very first time. We're still giving Ph.D.s every year to people trying to figure that out.

"'But even if we knew, we still would see through a glass darkly. We still would know in part,'" Clinton said. "'If we didn't see through a glass darkly and know in part, we'd be the sons and daughters of God. We would not need Jesus. We would not need salvation. We would not need anything.'"


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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