A Baptist's Baptist in the Oval Office

It was the right sermon to the right flock at the right time.

"My father was certain that Cain and Abel were the first Baptists because they introduced fratricide to the Bible," said Bill Moyers, a Baptist preacher turned media guru, hours before Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Moyers was speaking at the First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., and the congregation included Clinton and Al Gore, who are both Southern Baptists.

"At the core of our faith is what we call soul competency," he said. "Created with the imprint of divinity, from the mixed clay of earth, we are endowed with the capacity to choose, to be ^E a grown-up before God, making my own case, accounting for my own sins, asking my own questions and expecting in good faith that when all is said and done I'll get a fair hearing and just verdict."

To which the born-again believer in the Oval Office says, "Amen." Clinton has always prided himself on being part of an unruly crowd that has few if any doctrines that cannot be submitted to a yea-or-nay vote in a local church or even a single pew. Baptists are their own priests. Each can read the Bible and make up his or her own mind. Clinton has a Bible, too.

It's hard to understand the morality plays in this White House without understanding that Clinton is a Baptist's Baptist. His Baptist critics say he makes up his rules of faith as he goes along. Yet they have no catechism or tradition that authoritatively says he is wrong. If they do, then they're not really Baptists.

Naturally, Baptists have been free to offer a variety of responses to the latest firestorm. Here's a sample.

* The Southern Baptist Convention's president noted that the Bible teaches Christians to pray for their leaders -- no matter what. "God is far more concerned than any of us about the character of our leaders," said the Rev. Tom Elliff, speaking at an evangelism conference in Alabama. After all, God "knows more truths than we will ever know." While Elliff avoided the current scandal, he said America is in "big trouble" and that "every citizen has a right to expect good character on the part of all our leaders."

* One progressive Baptist friend of Bill stressed that he won't abandon Clinton, in part because of the president's support for the poor and the oppressed. Tony Campolo of Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., told the Associated Baptist Press that he would treat Clinton as Jesus would treat him. "I follow a man who really didn't give a hoot about his reputation. As a matter of fact, I think Jesus had the worst reputation in Jerusalem," said Campolo.

* In Little Rock, Ark., Clinton's pastor is hearing tough biblical questions, especially about the president's reported view that sexual acts short of intercourse do not violate the Sixth Commandment against adultery. "No, I wouldn't defend his interpretation of that," said the Rev. Rex Horne of Immanuel Baptist Church, quoted in the Washington Times. "I know it's too early to know or tell what's happening here, the truth from the allegations, but I feel pain and am praying for the president and his family and our country at this time."

* Another Baptist with a unique perspective is Donna Rice Hughes, who once was trapped in a media storm with presidential candidate Gary Hart. She told World magazine that she is offering special prayers for Monica Lewinsky. It's so easy, she said, for people to label a woman a "bimbo," "obsessed" or "attention- starved." It's even easy for Christians to say, "Oh, I'm better than that person. I didn't make that mistake," said Hughes, who is now a conservative Christian activist.

* The president, meanwhile, simply told those at the National Prayer Breakfast that he is thankful for the prayers and "scriptural instruction" he has received recently. "I ask also for your prayers as we work together to continue to take our country to higher ground and to remember the admonition of Micah, which I try to repeat to myself on a very regular basis. I ask your prayers that I and we might act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God."