Commenting on one of the nation’s most sensitive topics, President Clinton said Monday that he fears American society may have become “entirely too secular” and warned against the tendency of many politically liberal Americans to mistrust those who take public positions based on religious convictions.
“The people of faith in this country ought to be able to say that” religion shapes their approach to public debate without someone saying, “ ‘Oh, you’re just being a right-winger,’ ” Clinton said.
Clinton made the remarks at an ecumenical prayer breakfast for some 60 clergymen and leaders of charitable organizations at the White House. The statements amounted to his first public speech since returning from a 10-day vacation and marked what the President said he hopes will be a “new beginning” for his Administration.
Although close friends have often talked of the importance of religion to both the President and his wife, Clinton generally has been reluctant to discuss the subject in public. Monday’s comments were among his most extensive public statements on the often-controversial issue of religion in a diverse democratic society.
A senior aide said that the remarks stemmed in part from “what he went through in the last few weeks"--referring both to the suicide of old friend and assistant White House counsel Vincent Foster and to the opportunity while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard to relax and reflect on his life. The President has had little time for lengthy introspection during the last two hectic years of campaigning and governing and the recent respite enabled him to “get back in touch with the big picture,” the aide said.
Clinton’s past wariness on religious topics has been in marked contrast to the professions of faith by another Southern Democratic governor-turned-President, Jimmy Carter. Clinton advisers believe that Carter’s public expressions of faith soured many voters, providing an example that they have sought to avoid. In addition, since Carter’s tenure, the rise of a politically powerful and conservative religious movement in the United States has made the whole topic of religion more complicated for Democrats and liberals, leading many to see almost any public profession of faith as a potential breach in the wall of separation between church and state.
That reaction, Clinton said, is a mistake.
“The fact that we have freedom of religion,” he said, “doesn’t mean that those of us who have faith shouldn’t frankly admit that we are animated by that faith, that we try to live by it--and that it does affect what we feel, what we think and what we do.”
“It’s hard for me to take a totally secular approach to the fact that there are cities in this country where the average murderer is now under the age of 16,” Clinton said. “It is self-evidently true; you cannot change somebody’s life from the outside in unless there is also some change from the inside out.”
At the same time, Clinton warned, religious people must realize “that our Constitution and Bill of Rights gives us all the elbow room to seek to do God’s will in our own life” and that “there will be inevitable conflicts, so that there will never be a time when everything that we think is wrong can also be illegal.”
Clinton did not specifically mention the highly charged debate over abortion but his language was clearly aimed at that controversy.
“It is very important that, as Americans, we approach this whole area with a certain amount of humility, that we be careful when we say that because we seek to know and do God’s will, God is on our side and, therefore, against our opponent,” Clinton said.
Society, he said, must provide “some room for Americans of good faith to disagree.”
At least some of Clinton’s language echoed the arguments of a recent book on religion and society--"The Culture of Disbelief” by Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter--that the President bought last week and apparently read. In his book, the scholar argues that American society has become excessively insistent on keeping religion out of debates over public policy.
In the past, Carter notes, religious convictions played a key role in motivating political movements, such as the campaign for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. By contrast, he argues, elite opinion today tends to denigrate religious motivation, treating it as something unsophisticated or subversive of democratic values.
The book, Clinton said, “lays a lot of these issues out that I am trying to grapple with.”
Clinton’s remarks also touched on a subject that has been a recurrent theme for him in the last few weeks--the need to find ways to make political debate less contentious and bruising.
“We must find a way to talk with respect with one another about those things with which we disagree and to find the emotional, as well as the intellectual freedom to work together,” Clinton said. “We can’t work our way through a lot of these economic problems unless we frankly admit that we’re moving into a new age where no one has all the answers.”