As Bill Clinton tells the story, it wasn't your typical Baptist prayer breakfast.
The guest of honor at the White House was the Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention's new president. The two men went jogging near the National Mall and had breakfast on the Truman Balcony with Vice President Al Gore. The three Southern Baptists didn't agree on everything, but the atmosphere was friendly -- in large part because the president admired Young's preaching so much.
But the crucial exchange in that 1993 meeting centered on a question about the Bible, said Clinton, speaking to last week's New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. This unprecedented summit drew about 10,000 Anglo, African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists from 30 North American conventions and organizations linked to the Baptist World Alliance.
Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young "looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. ... Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.'
"I said, 'Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.' He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.' "
The audience in the Georgia World Congress Center cheered, which isn't surprising since the New Covenant gathering served as a rally for Clinton and other Baptists anxious to build a progressive network to stand opposite the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
Also, it isn't surprising to learn that Young has a radically different take on what happened that morning. He agrees it was a friendly meeting, but doesn't remember eating breakfast. However, the preacher said the logistical details are beside the point.
"The main thing is that I have never asked anyone on this earth that question," said Young, who continues to lead Second Baptist Church in Houston, which draws about 25,000 worshippers to services each week on five campuses throughout that giant metroplex. "I have no doubt that someone, somewhere has asked Bill Clinton if he thinks the Bible is literally true, but it wasn't me.
"That isn't a question I ask. I mean, Jesus says, 'I am a door.' ... How do you claim something like that is literally true?"
In fact, Young doesn't remember mentioning "biblical inerrancy" during that White House meeting, the theological term at the heart of 30 years of conflict in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest non-Catholic flock.
However, the men did discuss the divisions in their church, Young added, and Clinton offered an articulate defense of his more liberal approach to the Christian faith. They also talked about specific moral and political issues, the kind of hot-button issues that are causing splits in many mainstream churches these days.
"I agreed not to make any public statements after that meeting," said Young. "So what we talked about was off the record then and I'll keep it that way today."
But Clinton and other New Covenant speakers -- including Gore and former President Jimmy Carter -- talked openly about the SBC's fault lines, including abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, clashing accounts of creation, global warming, the death penalty and the separation of church and state.
For Baptist conservatives, Clinton insisted, the theological foundation for their public activism was the "proposition that the Bible was literally true and that, once you understood its literal meaning, it was possible to know what God intended us to do about every conceivable political question alive in this day. And, that knowing God's will, if we did not do it, we had committed not just a political error, but a religious heresy."
But when it comes to politics, the former president said Baptists should focus on the verse in the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in which he stresses that it's impossible to understand everything about God's will because, in this life, "we see through a glass, darkly."
Therefore, Clinton stressed, "it almost doesn't matter whether the Bible is literally true, because we know in part, we see through a glass darkly. Humility is the order of the day. The reason we have to love each other is because all of us might be wrong."