Americans attempting to reconcile President Clinton's sex scandals with his membership in a Baptist church received assistance from Newsweek last week. The newsmagazine presented an analysis of the president as "Bill the Baptist." It goes a long way toward explaining the president, and, at the same time, the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Reporter Kenneth L. Woodward described Mr. Clinton as "a believer whose faith leaves plenty of license." Plenty, indeed. Most tellingly, the article also introduces those Baptists who seem to think that the president's behavior is perfectly within acceptable bounds for the nation's chief executive. Mr. Woodward inadvertently points to the issues that led to the conservative transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In a nutshell, grassroots Southern Baptists over the course of two decades overthrew a liberal denominational regime that had championed a vision of Baptist identity in which Bill Clinton had felt secure. The denomination's new, conservative leadership, repulsed by the president's behavior, has called for his resignation. The exiled liberals, who prefer to call themselves moderates, love the president's policies and believe that his series of embarrassing escapades should by no means bar the completion of his term. They have become his Baptist enablers.
Mr. Woodward quotes three principal moderates in his article-James Dunn, Glenn Hinson, and Foy Valentine-and all three are well known to Southern Baptist controversy.
In E. Glenn Hinson, professor at the moderate Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Va., Woodward found a church historian with a penchant for scandalizing the faithful. So far as Mr. Hinson is concerned, the president's sin is none of our business. "When the president told the nation that his problems were between himself, his family, and 'our God,' that was a very Baptist statement," Mr. Hinson said. Let's hope not, because it is not a very Christian statement. To call Mr. Clinton's pattern of serial adultery and lies "problems" is to relieve him of personal responsibility-and it avoids dealing with what the Bible so clearly reveals about the president's sin.
Citations from Mr. Hinson's writings were critical ammunition for the conservative movement in the SBC. Mr. Hinson had argued that the birth narratives of the New Testament "are more theological interpretation than historical fact," that Jesus "may have contemplated becoming a follower of John," and that the four Gospels must be discounted because they were "embellished" by the early church. His radical views were enough to send grassroots Southern Baptists to the theological barricades.
For many years, James Dunn was one of the denomination's most notorious irritants. He led his Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs-which represents several Baptist groups-to champion a radical vision of church-state separation that put him into regular alignment with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. Furthermore, Mr. Dunn refused to oppose abortion on demand but regularly opposed positions the convention championed.
By 1991 the SBC had had enough, and it defunded Mr. Dunn's agency. But the following year, Mr. Dunn was thrilled when Clinton and Gore, "a couple of buddies," were elected. He has attached himself closely to the White House.
The last of Newsweek's gang of three is Foy Valentine, who was executive director of the SBC Christian Life Commission during Mr. Clinton's formative years. More than anyone else, Mr. Valentine represents the links between President Clinton and the old moderate Southern Baptist leadership, especially illustrated by the issue of abortion.
Mr. Valentine's commission was the SBC's moral concerns agency, and his 27 years of leadership put the convention in line with the most liberal mainline Protestant denominations. A long-time supporter of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, Mr. Valentine opposed any move by the SBC to reverse its abortion statement. Nevertheless, in 1980 the SBC turned aside the advice of its own moral concerns agency and adopted a solidly pro-life resolution. Successive statements have reaffirmed that position, calling for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion.
According to Newsweek, Mr. Valentine is standing ready to affirm the president's liberal definition of adultery as well. "What he did is disgusting, but not what I would consider adultery," Mr. Valentine stated, adding that he is sure "most Baptists would agree." Of course, the last 20 years of SBC history have demonstrated that Mr. Valentine does not know what most Baptists believe.
Mr. Woodward's article goes far in explaining the president's twisted moral worldview. But it also serves as an indictment of the generation of liberal Baptist leaders who served as Bill Clinton's moral advisers, and are now his enablers in a lifestyle of gross immorality.
Southern Baptists will have to live with the tragic memory of these chapters in our denominational history; the nation is now living with the grotesque results of those spiritual influences. The question remains: Will the nation will continue to accept "Bill the Baptist" as Clinton the president?