Bill Clinton

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Oklahoma was shrouded in grief after the deaths of 168 people -- including 19 children -- in a homegrown terrorism attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service. So did Gov. Frank Keating. But everyone knew who would deliver the sermon and face the hard questions.

That was a job for the Rev. Billy Graham.

"The Bible says … there is a devil, that Satan is very real and he has great power," said Graham, focusing on the 9,000 mourners in the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Arena. "It also tells us that evil is real and that the human heart is capable of almost limitless evil when it is cut off from God and from the moral law.

 "The prophet Jeremiah said, 'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?' That is your heart and my heart without God. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God even if we cannot understand.  It is better to face something like this with God than without Him."

Graham didn't end those 1995 remarks with an "altar call," urging sinners to come forward and make a profession of faith. But he could have -- even with the president of the United States in the front row.

Then again, Clinton was from the South and attended Graham's 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Ark. The young Clinton was so impressed by the preacher's message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In the wake of his death this week, at age 99, diplomats, scholars and journalists will struggle to describe Graham's impact via preaching, television, radio, books and other writings. It's hard enough to do the math when discussing his 417 crusades in 185 countries, along with countless other gatherings ranging from presidential inaugurations to tiny youth rallies after his 1938 ordination as a Southern Baptist preacher.

To be blunt, it can be argued that Graham spoke -- in person -- to more people than any other leader in world history.

Word according to Bill Clinton

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."