Often the target of criticism from Southern Baptist Convention leaders during his two terms in the White House, former President Bill Clinton returned the favor Sunday, denouncing the denomination’s iVoteValues.com voter-registration initiative.
Speaking from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Clinton, a lifelong Southern Baptist, said he watched video from the recent SBC annual meeting where a leader touted himself as being a “values voter.” That implies, Clinton said, “that those of us who disagreed with him didn’t have any values.”
“And to them the values are anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and concentration of wealth and power,” Clinton said. “Jesus didn’t have much to say about what they say are the values of Christians today.”
Clinton said “the most important political verses for 2004” are two verses in First Corinthians 13, which include the phrase “but now we see through a glass darkly.”
He described meeting with the then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993, who pressed him to answer whether he believed the Bible is literally true. (Clinton didn’t name him, but Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, was elected SBC president in 1992 and 1993.) “I said, ‘Pastor, I believe it is completely true, but I don’t believe you or I or anyone on earth is smart enough to understand it completely.'”
“I believe President Bush is a committed Christian,” Clinton said. “I believe that his faith in Jesus saved him. I believe it gave him new purpose and direction to his life. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see through a glass darkly and know in part just like the rest of us.”
Clinton accused the Republican Party of “putting on its once-very-four-years compassionate face” for its convention this week in New York by featuring moderate speakers.
“When they go back to Washington it’s a different deal,” he said. “It’s run by the right-wing Southerners in the House and Senate and those lobbying groups and their allies in the White House and administration.”
He also accused Republicans of bearing “false witness,” which he implied the White House is doing by not condemning critics of Sen. John Kerry’s war record. “Sometimes I think our friends on the other side have become the people of the Nine Commandments,” he said.
While the right claims “the exclusive allegiance of America’s real Christians,” Clinton said values also compel him and other Democrats to care about poverty, the environment and campaign tactics. “We have values, too, those of us who respectfully disagree, and we believe that God has redeemed us, too.”
“It is wrong to exalt the rich over the poor,” Clinton said. “It is wrong to exploit the environment when you can save it and actually improve the economy. It is wrong to let people continue to aggregate enormous sums of money by raising health care premiums and leaving one in six Americans without health insurance. And it’s wrong to believe that we can solve all the problems of the world with a security-military only strategy when we plainly can’t whip everybody who might ever disagree with us so we’ve got to make some friends along the way, too.”
“Don’t let somebody tell you you’re weak because you don’t agree with everything somebody else does,” he said. “And don’t let somebody tell you you’re not a good Christian because your views on certain issues don’t fit the party line of the values-voter crowd. And remind them that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and all of us see through a glass darkly and all of us know only in part. ”
Clinton said he used to wonder why Republicans “hated a fellow like me so much,” and finally concluded they must consider him “some sort of apostate” because he is white and Southern but not a Republican.
Often criticized by SBC leaders for liberal policies on abortion and homosexuality, Clinton said “I have never met anybody who was pro-abortion,” and that “I’m not ashamed to believe that gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against and I don’t think Jesus ever had much to say about that.”
Clinton’s message was part of a movement started by Riverside Church called “Mobilization 2004,” a collection of progressive religious and secular groups promoting “prophetic justice principles” in public policy.
The message could prompt controversy over churches and politics. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State recently asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Jerry Falwell and Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd for allegedly endorsing President Bush in violation of IRS regulations against involvement in partisan politics by tax-exempt charities.
“I like John Kerry,” Clinton said at one point.
An AU spokesman said Monday the organization had received several complaints about Clinton’s comments and was “looking into it.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.