WASHINGTON -- Sounding alternately introspective and frustrated by attacks on his administration, President Clinton told religion journalists yesterday that he reads the Bible and other religious books for guidance and to cope with the isolation of the presidency.
He defended his administration's stand on abortion rights and on homosexuals in the military, saying he had read Scripture that had been cited by religious conservatives who are opposed to abortion and found the passages ambiguous, at least in terms of guiding a legal response to the issue.
"The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether you think abortion is wrong or not; the issue is whether or not the government should criminalize the conduct in all cases," the president said.
"I have read all the verses cited by people who say that it is self-evident that the Scripture is against abortion and we should criminalize the conduct of mothers and doctors, and I simply don't believe they're so free of ambiguity that you can say, 'Well, the only answer to this is to overturn the decision by constitutional amendment,' " Mr. Clinton said, referring to the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.
He also said that he had read "a lot of pro-life literature," apparently in an effort to understand both sides of the abortion issue. He did not specify what he had read or what conclusions he had drawn from the material.
The president, a Southern Baptist, made his comments to about 40 publishers, editors and reporters, representing different Baptist denominations, who were attending a White House briefing in the Old Executive Office Building.
The remarks provided an unusual look at the way Mr. Clinton's religious background intersects his public policy positions and his personal experience as president.
Besides trying to find "quiet time" to pray about difficult decisions, Mr. Clinton said, he regularly seeks guidance and insight from religious reading.
"Since I've been here, I've spent a lot more time than I ever have in my life reading religious books, books by people I've come to know and respect," he said. "And it's made a huge difference, actually, in enduring what is the pretty significant isolation of this job."
The president, did not specify what he read other than the Bible, although in speeches last year he praised "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion" (Basic Books, 1993) by Professor Stephen L. Carter of Yale University.
Asked how he should deal with the often harsh criticism of him by religious broadcasters such as Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Mr. Clinton responded: "I have been surprised that they haven't been held accountable by other people."
He said that "the best thing for me to is just keep doing my job," and doing what he could to help "elevate the presidency."