In an unprecedented action, the current and all living past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention have joined together to condemn President Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion bill passed by Congress in April. In a letter to the president dated June 6, the men called the president to repentance and urged Mr. Clinton to express publicly his regret over the veto.
The letter, which followed a similar condemnation by the Catholic bishops, is perhaps more significant because it represents the views of the leadership of the president's own denomination. As the letter writers note, this is the first time in the denomination's 150-year history that such a letter has ever been written to a president. In forceful terms, the authors call the veto "unimaginable" and say it "cannot be morally justified."
Mr. Clinton does not meet regularly with either the Baptist or Catholic leaders, but WORLD has learned that he did receive advice to sign the bill from a respected evangelical with whom the president meets monthly. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the western suburbs of Chicago, told WORLD that he and the president meet in the Oval Office for Bible study and personal counsel, and Willow Creek assistant Lee Strobel reported preparing two briefings on abortion for transmission to Washington.
According to Mr. Strobel, "At Bill Hybels's request I prepared a thorough executive briefing for the president on abortion in general and the partial-birth abortion issue in particular....In response to my first memo, I was asked to prepare a second executive briefing responding to specific inquiries by the president. I don't think it's appropriate for me to divulge the contents of the memos, since they were ultimately for the president's eyes, but I can tell you that they spelled out the evangelical position on the issue with as much evidence and persuasive force as I could muster."
Mr. Clinton was apparently unswayed by the memo and has, in fact, continued to misrepresent facts about the partial-birth abortion bill, a point that the Southern Baptist leaders point out in their letter: "Your oft-repeated rationale for an exception 'for the mother's health' is a discredited catch-all loophole which has been demonstrated to include any reason the mother so desires."
Although Mr. Hybels's relationship with Mr. Clinton does not seem to have affected the president's abortion policies, it may be having an effect on his rhetoric. Robert Dugan, director of the National Association of Evangelicals Washington, D.C., office, says, "I think that in some of the president's utterances and speeches, I see little lines that might have come out of a Bible study with [Mr. Hybels]."
Moral challenges may also have pushed Mr. Clinton to seek justification for his veto from women who have had partial-birth abortions-he surrounded himself with them at the veto ceremony-and from members of the religious left. Under the leadership of Ann Thompson Cook, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, officials from several oldline denominations signed a letter praising the president for his veto.
The letter, released April 30, put on record the leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and similar groups, as opposing any limitations on a woman's absolute right to abortion. "Neither we as religious leaders, nor the president, nor the Congress-none of us-can discern God's will as well as the woman herself, and that is where we believe the decision must remain."
The letter may have provided particular encouragement to the president because it was signed by J. Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, which the Clintons attend in Washington. Mr. Wogaman, not known as a careful biblical scholar, hosted a recent homosexual symposium at Foundry where the keynote speaker, Episcopal bishop John Spong, depicted Christ as a drag queen, and then said about the depiction, "I don't condemn it. I just don't know. I'll have to think about it some more." But on the question of abortion, Mr. Wogaman is certain: He told The Washington Post that "to dump on top of the tragedy the heavy hand of the law would be unfeeling."
When Mr. Clinton chose to veto the bill, he made a choice to follow the counsel of biblical teachers like Mr. Wogaman. He also angered many of his fellow Southern Baptists; the denomination presidents in their letter to him "pledge that we, and the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists, will do everything we are able to encourage Congress to override this shameful veto."