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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Transcript of Bill Clinton @ New Baptist Covenant

Click HERE to watch the video of President Clinton's 29 minute speech at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.

I've transcribed Clinton's speech and posted it below. I hope you'll read and come back later for my thoughts on Clinton and the memorable Celebration.

Meanwhile, stop by the blog of Baptists Today editor John Pierce and read his thoughts on Clinton's speech.
Thank you. Thank you very much (APPLAUSE)

Thank you Dr. Smith, President Carter, Mrs. Carter, Distinguished Platform Guests.

First I want to thank the choir for putting me in the right frame of mind.

They were magnificent.

President Underwood, thank you for having me at Mercer a few days ago. I loved it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I met with President Carter and many of the organizers of this meeting some time ago and was asked to come here. I was profoundly honored to do so. And I have followed this meeting in my otherwise crowded schedule as a free campaign worker. I have followed very closely any news reports that I could get of the proceedings. Obviously, I have read with great admiration and great agreement the comments of Vice President Gore, of my great friend Tony Campolo, and my wife's first boss - Marian Wright Edelman about poverty. Of John Grisham who I was told when I became President was my 17th cousin and I might add as far as I can tell, the only relative I ever had worth any money - about the importance of inclusion in the church. I have followed all of this greatly and the people who work for me prepared some remarks for me which talked about the work that I do that I thought was consistent with my faith with the purposes of this covenant. But I have decided not to give them. But instead to try to describe as nearly as Ican how we might achieve the purposes of this meeting - which is to go beyond those of us in this crowd, not to find a solution to the deep rift that has occured in the Baptist family but to find a journey that we might begin together. APPLAUSE

Since never in my life was I as active in my church as President and Mrs. Carter have been, I may not have any observation worth noting but I think this is more important than have one more person say: "I'm trying to do what you guess are for." There's no point in preaching to the choir. The Baptist Church of my childhood, the one I joined in Hot Springs, Arkansas when I professed my faith in Jesus Christ was overwhelmingly concerned with personal salvation, with preaching the Gospel and mission work. It's community involvement was largely limited to doing things for poor people around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I suspect that's like the Baptist Church alot of you grew up in. I first became aware that there might be a connection between my religious convictions and my political beliefs as a child when I heard Martin Luther King preach. Like many people in there young adulthood, I drifted away from my church. But when I moved to Little Rock and became Governor, I joined Emmanuel Baptist Church. We had a great preacher named W. Ovault who has been dead for some time now. He started going to the Holy Land in 1938 and decided sometime in the late 1950s that he should trade in his hellfire and brimstone preachin' style for a serious study of the Scripture. So, every Sunday morning was like a joyous college seminar. As a man who could read the oldest known text in Greek would take us through book by book of the Bible, Scripture by Scripture and attempt to explain what the real meaning of the words were. He wrote a little book called "Belief Plus Nothing" which indicated his conviction that as most of us believe that a profession of faith is sufficient to insure salvation - which is way so many of us have yolks about death bed conversions. Or reverse yolks. When I started out in politics, I went to visit an 80 year old man who could still laugh about his life. Bill, I may not have long to live but I'm thinking about changing my party registration because I'd rather them lose one than us. (LAUGHTER)

In the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed to be that there was an awakening of Baptists of all political stripes to the admonition of the Book of James - that people would know our faith by our works. I think honest people drew different conclusions about what the admonitions of James required. The conservatives took over the Baptist Convention. They believe that to show their faith by their works they had to become more political on issues of abortion, NRS, women's role in the church, gay rights, and a whole host of other issues. Those of us who disagreed were horrified when President 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 (APPLAUSE).

The theological basis on which these positions rested it seemed was the proposition taht the Bible was literally true and once you understood its literal meaning, it was possible to know what God intended us to do about every conceivable political question alive in the day. And in knowing God's well if we did not do it, we had committed not just a political error but a religious heresy.

Now when all this was going on - most people in my church went on just as before. And I think most Baptists did. They showed up for Sunday School. They showed up for Church. They tithed or they didn't (LAUGHTER). They were Republicans or Democrats. They cared about poverty or civil rights or economic growth or whatever else. But they thought they were being faithful to the traditional tenets of baptistry - the idea that salvation was personal and could only be ratified by baptism when one was old enough to know what one was doing. Which by definition implied that we accepted independence of thought and judgment. That churches should be independent. Our church did not assign pastors when vacancies occured, people were called to their churches by their congregations. And yet, those who read the book of James differently felt that the Bible being literally true required them to dictate the theology for all Baptists. And so the rift occurred.

In reaction, many progressive Baptists got more active than every before in the things that they had always believed in - but they were free-er somehow to belive that their reading of the Scripture impeled them to do more for poverty, to protect God's environment, to deal with problems like housing. Clearly, we have all cheered the work of President and Mrs. Carter in dealing with Habitat for Humanity as an expression of their Christian faith (APPLAUSE).

Indeed, I watched all this with a unique perspective because when I was a student in college, I went to a Cathlic university - Georgetown University - and I thought we were behaving, those of us who didn't agree with the drift of the church as if we believe in the periodic bishop statements of the Catholic mission. And I thought that was a good thing - that maybe Christianity beyond baptistry was coming together aroudn a new consensus.

After I became President, I continued to attend my local church whenever I was in Arkansas but I started to attend a Methodist church with Hillary and Chelsea whenever I was in Washington. They felt comfortable with the Methodist social mission of John Wesley. They always believed that they were supposed to do more for the poor. It was a wonderful experience for my daughter; she was sent to Appalachia with people from her youth group at church to work with desperately poor people. And she came back with a much finer appreciation for what life is like for many people who are unseen by the rest of us. She went to a Quaker school which provided as a condition of graduation that the children engage in community service. And again, she learned that working together, people weren't so different after all.

After I left the White House, I continued to support my local church in Arkansas but when in New York, I got to a tiny little Methodist church with Hillary when she's home where there are lots of poor people, not much money and because of my current good fortune I find that giving them what I thought was a modest contribution helps them to keep the doors open. Their very opening each Sunday is a social mission because poor people would have no place else to go.

Now, I say this because all of us have come here with high spirits and heavy hearts. We sense that there is something wrong when those of us were joined to the Baptist Church either out of birth or family or out of absolute conviction have drifted so far apart. Most of us here have found our feelings and our thoughts articulated more clearly than we otherwise could have in President Carter's book, Our Endangered Values. We believe that the most important thing is an individual's direct relationship with Christ. We believe in the independence of churches. We believe in baptism at the age of consent because we believe that people should be thinking.

It has been sad to me to see 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. Page. I was glad when he was elected President of the Convention. And I've had some good conversations with him. And I don't think we ought to give up. I was sorry when Governor Huckabee didn't come here. We were born in the same town and I consider him my friend even though we have lots of political disagreements. I have found that he has a generosity of spirit which keeps him from being mad all the time when he's disagreeing with me. (LAUGHTER) And when he, as Governor, he did have the best program in the country for fighting childhood obesity and trying to save our children's lives and promoting the body as the temple of God.

I was delighted when I heard just on coming here that Senator Grassley had come because I have watched him on occasion defy the conventional wisdom of his party and his stated philosophy to reach to the human core of an issue. And, so I say this in all good conscience. I could talk to you about the work we do on six continents against Climate Change or the 750,000 people we keep alive with the world's least expensive high quality AIDS medicine or a number of things BUT that's not the point. 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.

They read the obligations of the Scripture in a different way. I almost feel like Rodney King sometimes - Can't we all just get along? But here is what I think the nub of the problem is and what our only chance of resolving it is. In my first or second year as President, I think it was the first year, when the conservatives were in full control of the Southern Baptist Convention, a remarkable minister named Ed Young as the President. He was then in Texas and I believe he's now in Nashville. I still watch him on Sunday's every chance I get. He's a great preacher. And a very nice man. And someone introduced a resolution in the Baptist convention to kick my church out of the convention unless they kick me out of the church. Not because I was a sinner, they conceded we all are, but because my positions were not correct. By then I confess, I had become quite alienated because it was no longer possible for me to join...most Baptists suggested ignoring this because we had an interim pastor in our church who was in his real life a professor at one of the seminary's and he was purged for political incorrectness. I respected him. I cared for him. And I knew he was a man of God and a follower of Christ. But Reverend Young reached out to me. And he asked if Al Gore and I would have breakfast with him. And if I would go jogging with him up and down the mall of Washington first. As I remember, he was a little younger and a little fitter than I was. But I managed to keep up.

And we had a remarkable breakfast on the Truman balcony at the White House, sitting outside and talking, and Al Gore was there, and Al engaged him in an issue he debate. He said, 'ya know I love my Baptist roots but I have three daughters and a son and I don't think it's right that only I could become a minister" - so they argued about that. It was a good argument - respectful and good. And I was trying to keep things from getting out of hand (LAUGHTER), trying to be a repairer of the bridge before the bridge needed to be repaired. And I remembered saying, you know, the main thing about our faith is that it takes away the sin of pain and imperfection. Ya know, the most beautiful words in the Old Testament are the words of Isaiah where God says - "I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name. You are mine. Therefore we need not be afraid."

We talked some more. And then we returned to the disputes. And this is I think the nub of our challenge. And remember, I like this man. I admire his sermons. I think he is a good man. But he looks at me 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.(APPLAUSE) He said, "That's a political answer."

I said, No it's not. You asked a political question. I said, it is not. So we talked on. And I said, look I know you believe what you're saying. But let me explain why I answered the way that I did. To me, if you're looking for guidance on how to relate to other people in political or other matters beyond the affairs of the church, the most important verse in the New Testament for Christians to read is 1 Corinthians 13:12. 12, the verse before "And now abideth faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Not romantic love but agape. Love for one's fellow human beings. Why could that be possibly 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. I'm not a minister. I just read and think. All I know is what I think. But in the King James Version, Paul is comparing life on earth today as it is with all of its warts as we find it with life after death in God. And you all know the verse. But think about it. But not as it's read at weddings - it almost doesn't belong there. Think about it as a guide for life, and politics and how we relate to one another. "For now I see through a glass darkly; but then face to face, now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now abideth faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love."

The reason why we have to put love above everything else is because we see through a glass darkly and know in part. Therefore, it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true. Because we see through a glass darkly. Humility is the order of the day. The reason we have to love each other is because we all might be wrong. (APPLAUSE) And so, I don't think Al Gore is wrong. I think he's right. And I was thrilled when he won the Nobel Prize. I love Tony Campolo as my own flesh and blood. I admire Marian Wright Edelman more than virtually any woman than I have ever known. And John Grisham is a good and wise human being.

But we did not come here to ratify each other's good deeds. We came here to seek a Covenant of reconciliation. Can we get it? I don't think so, not right away. Should we abandon what we're doing? Not on your life. Should we abandon what we believe? No, we should redouble our efforts to serve the poor, the sick, the needy, to reach across the world and bring a divided and broken world together. But 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 (APPLAUSE). If there is any chance, any chance, that this Covenant can become an embracing one, that there could once again be a whole community then there has to be the chance of of Love, the chance that we might not give up our differences but find that our common humanity matters more. The fact that we can embrace our humanity one believing in a certain theological absolutism and the other saying "All I know is, I just know in part, I just know in part, I'm doing the very best I can, but I see through this glass darkly and this is what my conscience as a Baptist and as a Christian tells me to do."

Many evangelicals around America are caring more about AIDS and I applaud them. The Southern Baptist Convention apologized for slavery and for its segregation and discrimination. An I applaud them. Many people who think they are theological conservatives are doing more for the poor, care more about Africa, care about Climate change and I applaud it. I do not think the answer to this dillema that developed over decades and was in reaction to all kinds of developments which were way outside of the biblical sphere can be resolved in a day, week or year. It's a journey.

If we want them to take a journey with us we have to do two things. Find things we can do together. And we have to treat them with respect and honor and believe that they think they are right just as strongly as we do. When I was 13 years old, I had a science teacher who was an ex-coach. To put it charitably, he was not a handsome man. He wore coke-bottle glasses, clothes that were too tight for his heavy frame, and he smoked cheap cigars in an old cigar holder that caused his mouth to pucker all the time. But we was one wise rascal. But he told us now almost 50 years ago, "kids you're not going to learn anything in 8th grade science but if you don't remember anything I tell you, remember this, every morning I get up and I go into the bathroom, throw water on my face, put my shaving cream on, wipe my face and say Veron you're beautiful!"

Everybody believes that they are beautiful or right or good. We have to meet this schism with respectful disagreement. 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 with which we disagree with an outstretched hand and not a clenched fist.

And I will say again, no matter what condemnation is leveled at this movement - you must respond with the spirit of love. You must find something to do, 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 its hard enough for us to find out who said what when the very first time. We're still giving Ph.D. 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. 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.

So, I say to you, this is a wonderful beginning, I am thrilled every day to read the articles of what others have said here. But when you leave here, remember why you came. If we're going to form a Covenant which can embrace the whole body of the Baptist Church which every Christian can identify with and every good human being on Earth can applaud, it is the spirit with which we go forward and our determination to offer specific things that we can do as Children of God that will determine how it comes out in the end.

Thank you for trying. And God Bless You All

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Blogger CB Scott said...

Big Daddy,

I do respect you. I really do. I also do not know all your family went through back during the CR and for your pain and any wrong your family suffered I am sorry.

Yet, surely in the depth of your soul you do not believe this to be a good thing do you?

I once moved to put the church President Clinton was a member of out of the SBC. It was Dr. Patterson who ruled the motion out of order when it came to the floor for a vote. It may have passed.

Big Daddy, I am now glad it did not pass. I am glad it was ruled out of order. Although, I know, Dr. Patterson knows, and probably you know it was not out of order.

Dr. Patterson ruled it out of order because he saw what it could cause in the future had it passed and it may very well have passed.

I do pray for President Clinton. He may have one of the brightest minds of any man ever to serve as president of this nation, but he went so far from his faith in all things that he may have been one of our worst presidents.

Big Daddy, President Clinton is wrong. His theological positions are not biblical. He is just wrong. I do not think him a mean man. He is a man of good intentions gone astray.

I pray he returns to the way he knew as a child; The way of biblical faith.

I also pray you do not follow the path he has. I agree with you in many things. If you believe President Clinton to be right here I cannot agree with you. If you believe the NBC to have been a good thing I cannot agree with you.

I hope we can be friends and brothers in Christ. I also hope you abandon this way that you now seem to follow. The value of a person like you to the Kingdom is beyond measure, but if you continue in this path, the loss to the Kingdom's work will be a sad thing.

I am not saying you are not a Christian and I think you know that. I believe you are. I just think you need to look afresh at some things.

The NBC is not a good thing and for you to continue to follow this way will not be a good thing either.



10:31 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

BDW, thanks for posting this.

CB, were you at the Covenant? Because I was, and I have to disagree with your assessment that it wasn't a good thing. I did not agree with every single thing every single speaker said, but God definitely used this weekend to refresh my spirit and to remind us that despite the fact that disagreement seems to be written into our DNA, we can worship and serve God together in the places that we do agree. For that, I am profoundly grateful.

7:01 AM

Blogger Chris Johnson said...


Since you were there....

What was Clinton trying to say with

"The reason why we have to put love above everything else is because we see through a glass darkly and know in part. Therefore, it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true. Because we see through a glass darkly. Humility is the order of the day. The reason we have to love each other is because we all might be wrong. (APPLAUSE) And so, I don't think Al Gore is wrong. I think he's right.

"it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true".

Seems a bit vague,

Can you explain him a little better, concerning that line.


5:43 PM

Blogger Kaylor said...

Chris: What he is saying is even though the Bible is completely true, none of us is smart enough to perfectly interpret it. Thus, we all make mistakes in our interpretation. Thus, when it comes to our interpretations it does not really matter that the Bible is without errors but we add errors in our interpretation.

9:38 AM

Blogger Matt said...

"...I think it is completely true..."

"...it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true."

So basically the Former President is saying that everything he says and believes almost doesn't amount to a hill of beans?

5:08 PM


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