Clinton broaches topic of religious convictions ON POLITICS

August 31, 1993|By David Lauter | David Lauter,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Entering into a debate on one of the nation's most sensitive topics, President Clinton said yesterday he fears American society may have become "entirely too secular" and warned fellow Democrats against the tendency of many politically liberal Americans to reflexively 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 hoped would 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 has generally 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 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 introspection during the past 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 volubility of another Southern Democratic governor-turned-president, Jimmy Carter. Carter's public expressions of faith soured many voters, providing an example that Clinton aides 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. Carter in his book argues that American society has become excessively insistent on keeping religion out of debates over public policy.

Clinton's remarks also touched on a subject that has been a recurrent theme for him -- 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 that emotional, as well as the intellectual freedom to work together," Clinton said.

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