Bill Clinton and the Bully Pulpit

Joseph M. Knippenberg

August 1, 2004

This past Sunday, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Bill Clinton preached a sermon from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church, long a leading pillar of liberal Protestantism. It was classic Clinton, and I’m sure the audience was moved.

The sermon was part of a campaign—long urged by former Clinton aides Mike McCurry and John Podesta, and taken up by Riverside Church—for the Democrats and religious progressives to reclaim the language of faith from conservatives. Clinton always was, and still is, better at this than John Kerry. He knows his Bible—Old and New Testaments—and, unlike Howard Dean, he knows which is which.

Clinton drew for his listeners a contrast between the religious agenda of the Republicans—"anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, concentration of wealth and power"—and that of the Democrats—"commitment to the common good, concern for the poor and vulnerable, the middle class families, the preservation of our God-given environment, unity over division, and… truth in campaign advertising." The Republicans, he said, will make a show of their compassion and inclusiveness over the next few days, but they don’t really mean it.

The Republicans, he implied, have more in common with our enemies abroad than with their fellow citizens. Here’s his description of the foreign threat: "Terror is their tactic, but it is their ideas, their hatred, their absolute certainty that they are so right that they can kill people who disagree with them—that is our enemy." Religious conservatives allied with Republicans "believe… that all who disagree with them are somehow almost non-human, certainly not deserving of basic consideration." "[T]hese people really do believe they are in possession of absolute truths." There you have it; the question is settled: Osama bin Laden would vote Republican.

Not everything the ex-President said was that incendiary. Some of it was more subtle and perhaps even true: "I believe that President Bush is a committed Christian. I believe that his faith in Jesus saved him. I believe it gave him a purpose and direction to his life. But it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see through a glass darkly and knowing [sic] parts just like the rest of us." We’re fallen, fallible, and in need of grace. We know our obligations, but may not know best how to achieve them. We don’t have a monopoly of truth and hence "have no choice but to have a charitable attitude toward each other."

The logical conclusion, which the ex-President never draws, is that reasonable and decent people can disagree about how best to assist the needy. Instead, he repeats John Kerry’s stock reference to the Book of James: "I will see your faith through your works." If you don’t support the expansion of the welfare state, you’re hard-hearted and ultimately untrue to your professed faith.

The real debate concerns the degree to which poverty is a result of structural problems beyond the control of individuals or the result of habits and attitudes of aimlessness and irresponsibility born, let’s say, of "soul sickness." President Bush’s own biography inclines him to regard the latter as a contributing cause to the predicament of those who seem unable to care for themselves and their families. However much it is obliged to help those who cannot help themselves (the elderly and disabled, for example), the government, Bush believes, cannot change the lives of those who must, in effect, regain their hope and sense of responsibility by getting right with their God.

Rather than take it seriously, liberal religionists like Bill Clinton and John Kerry typically hoot this position out of the sanctuary. Thus when Alphonso Jackson, Bush’s HUD Secretary, spoke before a conference organized by Call to Renewal, a liberal religious anti-poverty group, his reception was "chilly," culminating in "a cascade of hisses and boos," as described by Eyal Press in The Nation. Press goes on, quite reasonably, to observe that the "faith community is ultimately no less divided about the causes of poverty than the rest of society is."

But if we "see through a glass darkly" and so are called to be charitable, as Bill Clinton avers, shouldn’t we actually argue civilly about policy and not, as he and John Kerry have both done, use the Book of James to impugn President Bush’s good faith?

Of course, even when the ex-President seems to be "charitable" to his successor, he’s just preparing the way for another stiletto thrust. George W. Bush is a man of faith, he says, who sees through a glass darkly. "That doesn’t mean that [his] positions are not subject to evidence and argument and doesn’t mean that you can have a bunch of people act on your behalf and pretend like you don’t know ’em to say that the seven people on John Kerry’s swift boat don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that John Kerry deserved the silver star, the bronze star, and three purple hearts." George W. Bush is a man of faith who condones unjustly smearing his opponent, just as he condoned smearing John McCain in the 2000 primary campaign and Max Cleland in the 2002 Georgia Senate race. That Saxby Chambliss (and not George W. Bush) was Cleland’s opponent doesn’t faze the ex-President. Why let minor details interfere with a stirring sermon?

Bill Clinton preaches a good sermon, managing uncivilly to decry the alleged incivility of the Republicans and to demonize those who he says demonize their opponents. Although he probably didn’t mean it in quite the way I’ve taken it, this sermon, Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman said in his RNC blog, "essentially laid out a playbook for the religious Left."

That the sermon was delivered at Riverside Church reminds me of an incident in the life of young George W. Bush, Yale freshman. After his father was defeated by Ralph Yarborough in a Senate race, George W. was disconsolate. William Sloan Coffin, then Yale chaplain but soon to be iconic Riverside pastor, had this to say to him: "Oh yes, I know your father. Frankly, he was beaten by a better man." (No fisher of souls, he!) The tradition of bashing Bushes goes back a long way at Riverside Church. Let us hope that it continues for at least another four years.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.