On the eve of Good Friday, President Clinton was searching for a message to console residents of Oklahoma City as they prepared to mark the first anniversary of the bombing there. He turned to a minister and a gospel hymn.
"The president told me, 'I want to be more to them than the president of the United States. I want to serve as a pastor to them in the midst of their suffering,' " recalls evangelical minister Tony Campolo. "He asked me to help him find the words."
A Southern Baptist who can recall Bible verses from memory, Clinton embraces the bully pulpit of the White House. Although assailed on questions of character and conviction, he has been praised by religious leaders for having a minister's ability to comfort in times of grief, such as the explosion of TWA Flight 800; to urge unity in places of conflict, such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East; and to speak eloquently of the nation's tradition of tolerance and compassion.
Clinton has a keen awareness of the importance of religion among Americans, say ministers who know him. And, unlike GOP challenger Bob Dole, he is comfortable putting his faith on display.
When he visited Oklahoma City in April, for example, Clinton walked from the bomb site to a new day-care center with relatives of those who died in the federal building explosion.
"This is, after all, Good Friday," he said to them. "It is a day for those of us who are Christians that marks the passage from loss and despair to hope and redemption. And in a way that is the lesson of this little walk we took -- from a place where we mourn lives cut so brutally short, to this place where, thanks to all of you, we can truly celebrate new beginnings."
Reflecting on that speech, in which Clinton also quoted from the hymn "Amazing Grace," the Rev. James Dunn, executive director of the Joint Baptist Committee, says: "He is the best preacher in times of crises that this country has had in decades and decades."
Just as Dole running mate Jack Kemp can connect with Hispanic voters by speaking in Spanish, Clinton speaks the lan- guage of religious people. His roots are conservative Southern Baptist, but the president's faith has also been shaped by black Baptist preachers, Jesuit college professors, United Methodist ministers and Pentecostal camp meetings.
Martin E. Marty, a theologian and historian at the University of Chicago School of Divinity, says: "If you watch him, he's the only candidate who can move from Catholic Mass to an African-American service and be right at home. He's schooled at worshiping."
On most Sundays, the Clintons attend services at Foundry United Methodist Church, a liberal, mostly white, middle-class church a few blocks from the White House. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter, Chelsea, are confirmed Methodists.
The president says he prays every day; simple repetitive prayers asking God to help him be a better father, husband, president, person. "This is an experience, doing this job, that will either bring out all your weaknesses or will require you to reach beyond yourself," Clinton said in a 1994 interview.
The president has said that he studies the Bible because he finds the most powerful ideas there. At least a third of the books on the shelves in Clinton's study are spiritual books, says Campolo, the evangelical minister.
Clinton speaks about once a week with the Rev. Rex Horne, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., where he worshiped while living there. And he has assembled an informal network of religious leaders who send him faxes with messages of spiritual guidance when he is struggling with a political or a personal crisis.
In interviews and speeches before religious groups of all denominations, Clinton talks about how religion and religious leaders have helped him through his life's toils: growing up with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather; helping his younger brother through a cocaine addiction and jail term; political defeat in 1980 as governor of Arkansas. And he urges others to talk openly about their beliefs.
"Sometimes I think the environment in which we operate is entirely too secular," Clinton said at a 1993 White House prayer breakfast. "The fact that we have freedom of religion doesn't need to mean we need to have freedom from religion. It doesn't mean that those of us who have faith shouldn't frankly admit that we are animated by that faith."
Such fervent religious appeals have not inoculated Clinton from steady criticism of his character. His presidency has been marked by accusations that he is a womanizer and adulterer; that he shrunk from the call for military duty during the Vietnam War; and that he abandons friends, such as civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier, and causes, such as gays in the military, for the sake of political expediency.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that a majority of those surveyed don't believe that Clinton has high personal, moral and ethical standards.
His opponents -- especially those who disagree with Clinton's support of abortion rights and gay rights laws -- say there's very little substance beneath his Christian talk.
"I feel like he is a Baptist in name only," says Larry Page, an ordained Baptist minister from Clinton's home state of Arkansas. "I question his sincerity. He's devoid of any heartfelt, value-based opinions. All he cares about are photo-ops in churches because they help him get elected."
Page says it's not surprising that Clinton has attracted supporters among religious leaders, especially evangelical Christians. "I think they are flattered by him."
Clinton shrugs off such criticism. "I believe ultimately my character will be judged by God," he said in a recent interview with historian Taylor Branch for Esquire magazine.
"And I think a lot of the people who presumed to offer such judgments were often talking about things they don't know anything about, and sometimes they are incredibly gullible at buying whatever little lie is being dished up."
Americans have always cared that their president believes in God, says presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns. But the public becomes skeptical of too much public piety, he says. Only a few presidents have risked speaking about the ways that they were moved by their faith.
Among the most spiritual was Abraham Lincoln, historians say. Although he was never a member of a denomination, he went to services at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church two or three times each week. He studied the Bible and used its language to make moral arguments against slavery. And he talked openly about how often he prayed, saying that the pressures of his office drove men to their knees.
"He had perhaps more spiritual depth than anyone who has held office," says Donald L. Robinson, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "He understood all that he was doing in terms of his faith in God."
Theodore Roosevelt, taking office nearly a half-century later, was the first to describe the presidency as a "bully pulpit." John McCollister, author of a book on faith and U.S. presidents, says that Roosevelt worshiped with gusto. The bespectacled president, who had the bulk of a linebacker, loved the way his bass voice blared above the rest of the congregation when they sang.
Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, believed that his presidency and the decision to enter World War I were part of a religious mission, McCollister says. Wilson called U.S. troops "Christ's soldiers."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an Episcopalian who led America through the end of the Great Depression and World War II, devoted his presidency to a sweeping mission of social justice, the New Deal. His wife, Eleanor, said, "I always felt that my husband's religion had something to do with his confidence in himself."
Clinton shares the same faith as former President Jimmy Carter, also noted for the openness with which he discussed his beliefs. While Carter often expressed himself with the authority of a Sunday school teacher, determined to teach Americans how to live according to God's rules, Clinton describes himself as just another sinner striving against temptation.
"When Bill talks about faith, he talks about repentance," says Donald Jones, who was Hillary Clinton's youth minister when she was growing up in the Chicago suburbs. "He talks about sin and evil as part of the human condition that we all share."
God's grace in forgiving sins was a theme Clinton stressed during his 1992 presidential campaign in an interview with VISN, an ecumenical Christian cable television network. The show, "Sunday Go To Meeting," was set in Stone Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, W.Va. Some 800 people packed the pews.
Clinton, seated at the altar, answered questions about how his Southern Baptist background would help make him a good president.
"I think it will make me more humble in office," he said. "I think it will make me more determined to do the right thing. I think it will protect me from despair and from giving up."
Only when the moderator asked Clinton to speak about personal struggles did the conversation turn tense. Already public were charges that Clinton had carried on a 12-year affair with a nightclub singer named Gennifer Flowers. And Clinton had already admitted on national television to causing pain in his marriage.
Clinton said that according to his faith, all are sinners and no one should throw stones.
"The Bible teaches us that we've all failed," Clinton said. "We'll all continue to fail. Our obligation is to continue to struggle and to continue to believe and to continue to be charitable as we do it."
Bill Clinton found religion on his own, when he was 8 years old. Carolyn Staley, a childhood friend, says Clinton's mother once told her, "Bill just got up one day and said he wanted to go to church -- all by himself."
The late Virginia Kelley, Clinton's mother, rarely attended church herself. Married four times, she enjoyed the night life in Hot Springs, Ark., hanging out at clubs, gambling halls and the racetrack.
"As a child, if I hadn't had my church, I think my life would have been much more difficult because I would not have been as aware as I was in my simple place as a child of God," Clinton said in an interview with religion reporters in December 1993.
Clinton would walk to Park Place Baptist Church with a Bible tucked under his arm and repeat his Sunday school lessons at the dinner table. His grandmother predicted that he would be a preacher.
Leaving home, where the Baptist faith was almost a state religion, for Georgetown University was not a difficult transition for Clinton. In Catholicism, he says, he found confirmation of his Baptist beliefs that God was a God of second chances.
"The whole institution of confession in the Catholic Church -- and the way of giving people a consistent way of being both sinners and Christians and then being able to come back, the idea of continuous coming back and striving to do better -- had a profound impact on me," the president said in the meeting with religion reporters.
Georgetown philosophy Professor Otto Hentz was so impressed by Clinton that he invited him for a hamburger and asked him to join the Jesuits. Hentz said he had no idea that Clinton was a Baptist.
"All I knew was that he was very bright and he cared about people," Hentz says. "He takes his faith very seriously."
Throughout much of Clinton's 12 years as governor of Arkansas, he sought spiritual guidance from the Rev. W. O. Vaught of Immanuel Baptist Church. Vaught, a bald man whose deep voice belied his short, slender build, died in 1989.
Many say the pastor was like a father to Clinton. They prayed together, studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, and discussed important political decisions.
For example, Clinton consulted Vaught on whether to go forward with the execution of a convicted murderer, John Swindler.
Carl Vaught, the minister's son, recalls that his father and Clinton discussed whether the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shall not kill," prohibits the death penalty.
"My father told Bill that he was positively committed to the death penalty because that was what the Old Testament taught," Carl Vaught recalls. "He told him that by signing an execution order you are not murdering someone. You are putting someone to death for violating the commandment of 'Thou shall not kill.' "
Swindler was executed in the electric chair June 18, 1990. It was the first execution in Arkansas in 26 years. Before leaving office, Clinton allowed three more executions.
"God has the ability to forgive the men who I permitted to be executed," Clinton said later. "I don't think that the Bible prohibits capital punishment, and I think under certain circumstances it is appropriate for society to exact that punishment."
A kind of First Pastor
Since becoming president, Clinton has talked in pulpits and synagogues nationwide, simultaneously cementing his ties to diverse religious groups while performing as a kind of First Pastor.
In an impassioned speech before black religious leaders in November 1993, he stood in the Memphis church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the night before he was killed. With the cadence of a black Baptist preacher, Clinton urged those in the audience to fight against crime in the way they stood against segregation during the 1950s and 1960s.
"If Martin Luther King were to reappear by my side today and give us a report card on the last 25 years, what would he say?" Clinton pressed. "I fought for freedom, he would say, but not for the freedom of people to kill each other with reckless abandon; not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of the children to walk away from them and abandon them as if they don't amount to anything. This is not what I lived and died for."
A few days later, the president signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law requiring government agencies to show compelling reasons before restricting religious exercise.
"Religion and religious institutions have brought forth faith and discipline, community and responsibility over two centuries for ourselves and enabled us to live together in ways that I believe would not have been possible," Clinton said.
In February, the Clintons invited Muslim families to the White House to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It was the first time Muslims had been invited to the White House for a religious event.
And Clinton has been praised by leaders of the American Jewish community for his efforts to win conciliation among the determined adversaries of the Middle East. He quoted the Old Testament and Koran in his 1993 speech to celebrate a peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"The sound we've heard today once again, as in ancient Jericho, was of trumpets toppling walls," the president said. "But, praise God, these trumpets heralded this time not the destruction of that city but of its new beginning."
Clinton's skill at sermonizing has impressed the most rousing and inspiring religious speakers in America. Billy Graham says that Clinton should fulfill his grandmother's prophecy and become an evangelist minister when he leaves the White House.
"He believes the Bible. He believes in God. He believes in Christ. He believes that he has been born again," Graham said during a television interview in May. "He's got all the gifts an evangelist should have."
Pub Date: 10/14/96