If President Bill Clinton ever had a prayer with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, it was right after a meeting on Sept. 16, 1993, with then-SBC president Ed Young.
Though he was a member of a Southern Baptist church, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., while in office, the 42nd president of the United States was never invited to speak at an annual meeting of the nation’s second-largest religious organization during his eight years in office.
The SBC issued resolutions critical of Clinton’s policies on homosexuality and abortion, and in 1993 there was an unsuccessful attempt to deny seating to messengers from his church–“not because I was a sinner,” he recounted, “they conceded we all are, but because my positions were not correct.”
Because of that, and a seminary professor he knew and respected who was purged for political incorrectness, Clinton confessed he was “quite alienated” when Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, reached out to him and asked if he and Vice President Al Gore would have breakfast with him and if Clinton would take him jogging on the Washington Mall.
During breakfast outdoors on the Truman Balcony at the White House, Clinton said, Gore, also a Southern Baptist, engaged Young in a point of theological debate.
“You know, I love my Baptist roots,” Gore told Young, “but I have three daughters and a son, and I don’t think it’s right that only my son can become a minister.”
Clinton said he tried “to keep things from getting out of hand” as the two men had a “good” and “respectful” argument.
Clinton said he liked Young, admired his sermons and still watches him preach on television when he can. At one point, Clinton said, Young looked at him and 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, ‘Reverend 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 said.
“He said, ‘That’s a political answer,’ and I said, ‘No it’s not. You asked a political question.'”
The two talked on, and Clinton explained his answer by quoting First Corinthians 13:12, the verse before the passage commonly read at weddings, “and now there abide faith, hope and love, and 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 leads to salvation? What could Paul have possibly meant?’ I said I’m not a minister, I just read and think. All I know is what I think.”
“But in the King James Version, in that verse, Paul is comparing life on earth today as it is, with all its warts, as we find it, with life after death in God.”
“For now I see through a glass darkly, but then face to face,” Clinton quoted verse 12. “Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known.”
“The reason we have to put love above everything else is because we see through a glass darkly and know in part,” Clinton said. “Therefore it almost doesn’t matter whether the Bible is literally true, because we know in part; we see through a glass darkly. The reason we have to love each other is because all of us might be wrong. We might all be wrong.”
Young reported on that same meeting four days after it occurred, at a Sept. 20-21, 1993, meeting of the SBC Executive Committee. Young described eating and jogging with the president, but he did not volunteer any details of what they discussed.
Young called for SBC churches to pray for Clinton and Gore for 40 days beginning Jan. 1, 1994.
“There is a heart there–a spiritual cross-pull–in the life of our president,” Young said. “Who knows what the Lord will do?”
Clinton said he believed his conversation with Young went to the “nub” of the challenge to reconcile Baptists with differing opinions.
“We all believe that we are fulfilling God’s will in our lives,” he said. “The point I want to make is, so do they. They read the obligations of Scripture in a different way.”
“We have to meet this schism with respectful disagreement,” Clinton said. “President Carter aided the search for reconciliation by writing that book. He did not impede it. Our Endangered Values helped us all to clarify what we think, but we must approach those who disagree with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.