ATLANTA -- Given the timing of his February 1 speech and the large Baptist audience (including a large African-American presence), the question on everyone's mind as former President Bill Clinton took the podium at the Georgia World Congress Center was: Will he go there?
"There" in this case means "partisan." The event that he was speaking at, the New Baptist Covenant, was supposed to be about Baptist unity and social justice, not politics. But many observers (including Shawn Macomber) saw it more as a political stunt, organized by that other living Baptist, former president Jimmy Carter, to gain votes for Democrats. Would Clinton play the prophet or the partisan?
Clinton dropped several "casual" references to his wife, mostly about her church attendance, but he refrained from mentioning her campaign. Alas, he wasn't above casting a few stones, mostly in the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party, both of which were -- shall we say? -- not well represented in the audience.
He opened by announcing that he would not give the remarks which had been prepared for him. Rather, he would speak from his heart to "try to describe as nearly as I can how we might achieve the purposes of this meeting."
His speech closed out the three-day convention. Though more than 30 Baptist denominations were represented, he spoke to a much smaller crowd than had attended on previous nights' speeches, with audience members slowly trickling out all evening.
Clinton said the church of his upbringing "was overwhelmingly concerned with personal salvation" but that "its community involvement was largely limited to doing things for poor people around Thanksgiving and Christmas."
He credited hearing a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. with making him aware that there was a connection between his religious beliefs and his political ones.
"Everybody believes that they are beautiful or right or good," Clinton said. "We must approach those with which we disagree with an outstretched hand and not a clenched fist."
"Those with which we disagree" turned out to be conservative Southern Baptists.
Clinton characterized the Southern Baptists as "theological absolutists" and contrasted them with the "progressive Baptists" he saw before him. According to Clinton, progressives "put love above everything else because we see through a glass darkly and know in part."
He urged the audience not to lapse into self-congratulation but to pursue reconciliation with their opponents. To do this, they should "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."
And sometimes, those absolutists might actually be in the right. Clinton allowed that "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."
He also praised the SBC for apologizing "for slavery and for its segregation and discrimination."
With praise like that, who needs insults?
The former president spoke a great deal about loving and forgiving people, but very little about sin, specifically his own past history of marital infidelity. It was a telling lapse, given the venue and the topic.
As one listener remarked, "With this audience, he might as well have mentioned it and gotten it out of the way. It's what everyone's thinking about."
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