Cover Story

Resolute at New Year's

Luis and Pat Palau in the different world of Bill Clinton and the liberal elite

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

The media reports by now are traditional: At the end of December President Clinton and his family fly to Hilton Head, S.C., for the annual "Renaissance Weekend" talkfest. They meet and party with leaders and their families from various fields who spend three days in discussions on topics ranging from philosophy to diet, and then get together for a New Year's Eve countdown and sing-along. Reporters also pass along a few names from the guest list. This year the 1,300 individuals from 470 families in hotels along the beach included software mogul Mitch Kapor, sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham, PBS's Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a passel of celebrities, corporate CEOs, and cabinet secretaries. Mr. Clinton sat in on three panel discussions and Mrs. Clinton attended one on her husband's legacy. But one component flies in under media radar. Renaissance Weekend was begun in 1981 by Clinton friends Phil and Linda Lader, and it has an evangelical connection: Linda Lader's stepmother was Catherine Marshall, author of A Man Called Peter and Christy. Renaissance Weekend is overwhelmingly liberal and secularist, but the Laders apparently like to salt it with some evangelicals able to note the claims of Christ. Whether those individuals are willing to do so is another matter. Renaissance Weekend is like an intense version of the evangelical experience in many Ivy League classrooms. A student is surrounded by intellectually intense, witty, and at least superficially friendly people. The tendency is to want to fit in, because a remark that challenges secular liberal beliefs is likely to be greeted less by vigorous argument than by looks of pity. (The poor dear must be cloistered and clueless.) Into this environment on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 28, strode noted evangelist Luis Palau and his wife Pat. Mr. Palau was a banker in Argentina who entered what is now Multnomah Biblical Seminary in 1960 when he was 25, and in the years since then has preached to millions of people through revivals, radio, and television. What follows is a day-by-day description of how he and others at Renaissance Weekend fared. Sunday, Dec. 28 7:30 p.m. Opening dinner in the Hyatt's huge ballroom can be intimidating for first-timers, who wear big blue name tags that hang around necks like bibs. Most of the hundreds of veteran Renaissancers, whose name tags are white, fill up the round tables of 10 and carry on relationships begun at other dinners on the Boston-New York-Washington circuit. Pat Palau is nervous. The mother of four sons and a longtime helpmate of her husband, she feels a little lost in a room full of highly credentialed individuals who all seem to know each other. But when a young Harvard graduate who left a profitable career in New York to work full-time with his rock band takes a seat on Mrs. Palau's left and mentions his admiration for the Sex Pistols, she talks about music and the responsibility of parents for what their kids hear. Several seats over, Luis Palau explains that when he was 10 years old his father, a successful businessman in Argentina, died, saying, "I'm going to be with Jesus, which is far better." Mr. Palau's mother told him, "If you believe in Christ you too will die someday, but you will see God." Mr. Palau, who smiles quickly and talks rapidly, with strongly accented English, openly ponders ways of helping the personable but proud people around him understand that they too will see God, if through grace they have faith in Christ. 8:45 p.m. For after-dinner entertainment, some prominent people are asked to talk about their biggest mistakes. They have a chance to poke fun at themselves while making some philosophical points, but those who are not part of this crowd seize the chance to ingratiate themselves with it: A conservative makes fun of the ego-laden conservatives with whom she works, and an evangelical makes it clear that one of his best friends is bisexual. 9:45 p.m. Luis Palau is already hoping for the opportunity to do better the next evening. He has been asked, along with four others, to answer after-dinner questions posed by Phil Lader. Mr. Palau wonders how open he can be about the gospel: "A lot depends on the questions you're asked, you can't force it too hard," he says. "But if Phil gives me the opportunity, I'm ready." Monday, Dec. 29 8:20 a.m. The panels-usually half a dozen Renaissancers giving three-minute talks on all sorts of topics, followed by audience discussion-are underway. These are bright people: At a panel on changing roles of men and women, one woman is able to pay attention while doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. She completes it in 15 minutes. 10:00 a.m. At a panel on "spirituality," a Southern Baptist quickly mentions his admiration for a woman minister and criticizes the leadership of his denomination. Another evangelical talks about Star Trek. Neither talks about Christ. Others-a woman introduced as a witch and Tarot card reader pushes paganism-are not so reticent. A questioner asks whether the Trinity and the resurrection are now optional ideas for Christians. None of the panelists is ready or willing to emphasize the centrality of those beliefs. Also during the day: Pat Palau meets people "from a different world than the one I'm used to. We're not starting from the same place at all." She sits in on a panel where, in response to a question, liberal experts say spanking is wrong, and no one questions that judgment. Mrs. Palau says afterwards, "A number of us could have spoken up, but on the first full day, in that environment, a person with a doctorate in child development backs you down." 5:00 p.m. Parents and nannies (the nannies wear big yellow name tags) pick up younger kids after nine hours of Camp Renaissance at the Hilton, a few hotels down the beach. The camp is a model of Clinton childcare: lots of arts and crafts, with sports competitions sometimes officiated by Olympic gold medalists. There is also a multiculturalist subtext: One child, taught to think of himself as a Christian and an American, suddenly demands to know whether he is 1/4 some racial thing and 1/2 some other ethnic thing. 6:30 p.m. It's 45 minutes before dinner and Luis Palau, met in the hallway, is ready for his after-dinner opportunity. He gives his impressions of panels he attended during the day: "Rabbis talk about the Mishnah, they're very open about it.... I haven't heard any evangelicals talk about the gospel." Mr. Palau is determined to press: "I'm ready for tonight. I have my notes here, and I hope I get the opportunity." 9:30 p.m. One of the after-dinner panelists is tickling the ears of the audience with her theory that bright people are better looking than less intelligent folks. That's good news for the assembled listeners. Then it is Luis Palau's turn. After some polite conversation starters, Phil Lader offers Mr. Palau what he has been hoping for, a question about whether God is relevant to people today. Luis Palau-whose intensity is softened by a ready smile-leans forward and says, "We are created by God and for God. There is an emptiness in the soul until we get to know him in a personal way. Many Americans miss out on the third dimension of the human experience. We're healthy, we have good minds, but we forget about the soul. People's lives are empty. If you die without knowing Christ, what hope do you have?" To a follow-up query concerning the questions Mr. Palau is most often asked, he responds that people are consumed by guilt-and then he goes right at the issues about which some of the assembled cabinet officers, journalists, CEOs, and celebrities are likely to feel most guilty: "Will God forgive me for my abortion? Will God take me in after my divorce? We know so many children are angry after divorce. And people want the assurance of eternal life." Mr. Lader turns to other panel members and asks how they can fix whatever is bugging them. When he receives a vague answer about the importance of hope, Mr. Palau cordially seizes this opportunity also, noting that "hope has to be based on facts. We need to fix our faith on a stable rock-God as revealed in Jesus. Eternal life is promised to us, but we need to put our feet on that rock." Tuesday, Dec. 30 8:15 a.m. For the next six hours some 100 Renaissancers will attend a series of panels asking, "What is virtue?" That question obviously cries out for biblical answers, but a joke offered at the outset goes like this: A man goes to a rabbi and asks, "What is the meaning of life?" The rabbi answers, "That's such a wonderful question; why would you exchange it for an answer?" 10:30 a.m. As breakout sessions begin, it becomes clear again that anyone who says, "I have the answer," is considered boorish. Many of the participants, sharing a common liberal education and worldview, agree on their fundamentals. Evangelicals who do not share that body of assumptions have to decide whether to present the biblical antithesis. 12:15 p.m. In the ballroom, one lunch table has the name Luis Palau on it, so anyone who wants to talk with him has a prime opportunity. Several people do; they heard him the previous evening, and now they ask basic questions about spiritual matters. 2:00 p.m. As Renaissancers leave hotels for jaunts to the mall, the first evidence that President Clinton is coming appears: Secret Service men and women in polo shirts, with wires going into their ears, scurry around the hotel lobby. Outside the Hyatt, SUVs with machine-gun-toting agents inside line the driveway. The road between the Hilton and the Hyatt is lined with people waiting for a glimpse of the president's limo. Also during the day: Pat Palau, on a panel, speaks about how a God who is personal helped her to survive what was diagnosed as terminal cancer. She then discusses with an inquiring woman who this personal God is. "I travel with Luis a lot, but most of the people we encounter are at least 75 percent coming from the same place we are," Mrs. Palau says later. "I'm starting to enjoy talking with these people from a different world." 6:00 p.m. Renaissance children learn the art of the panel early. Fifteen 6- and 7-year-olds sit in chairs at the front of a small room, with proud parents watching and applauding as many give witty soundbites on "What I want to be when I grow up." Most of the girls want to be artists. One boy wants to play baseball, one wants to shoot bad guys, and the rest want to be artists as well. 6:45 p.m. Luis Palau in a corridor reflects on his day's discussions: "When you present the gospel, there will be a reaction," he says, punching one hand into the palm of the other. "But this is what we're here for. Salt and light." 9:00 p.m. President Clinton begins to walk a section of the ballroom and is immediately surrounded by those wanting to shake his hand. Like King Saul he is tall, and it's not hard for those on the other side of the room to pick him out by his silver hair. Dressed casually in golf shirt and khakis, he manages to make eye contact, smile, and greet personally each person he meets. Wednesday, Dec. 31 9:15 a.m. There's anticipation about which panel-10 often go on simultaneously-President Clinton will attend. He chooses one on a multiethnic society, listens and takes notes, and engages in a brief discussion afterwards on immigration and welfare. Also during the day: More panels about spiritual life go on, with evangelicals sometimes seeming to disarm opposition by suggesting, through jokes or sweet stories, that evangelicals are harmless and biblical ideas not particularly challenging. Many play to postmodernism: I'm spiritual my way, go ahead and be spiritual your way. A few tell pointed stories as Jesus did, then boldly lay out the gospel and stand ready to discuss it, in a friendly but firm spirit. 9:00 p.m. Luis Palau in a hallway after dinner reflects on the four days: "It's been great." He talks about one Renaissancer who "says he's empty and wants to learn more," and about the way he has been able to plant seeds with others. For Mr. Palau, the experience shows that evangelicals should be up-front about the claims of Christ: "Tell the truth, and everything works out." 10:00 p.m. Bill and Hillary Clinton on the ballroom stage are answering questions submitted beforehand by children and their parents. Many of them are softballs, and the Clintons answer at length. But when Bill Clinton is asked a tougher question, his face turns red and his rhetoric turns mean. 11:35 p.m. As the Clintons talk on-their session was to end at 11-many are leaving the ballroom to find dessert and champagne. 11:55 p.m. Outside the ballroom, Pat Palau says she is glad she came to Hilton Head. Although at first discussion was difficult-"I'm not used to doing apologetics"-she gained confidence as the days went on and found she could do well. Luis Palau notes that the evangelical goal at such a gathering should not be to fit in, but to show that there is a vital difference between biblical and non-Christian understandings. 11:59:50 p.m. The countdown begins inside and outside the ballroom: 10, 9, 8... Happy New Year, and a pianist begins "Auld Lang Syne." 12:10 a.m. President Clinton, his head visible above the crowd, is gathered with others by the piano for a sing-along that includes traditional songs like "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful," '60s favorites like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and-"Amazing Grace." -With reporting by Marvin Olasky Visit the Luis Palau website

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Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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