Bill Clinton can be eloquent in the pulpit, as he was in the Memphis Speech in 1993 (excerpts here). Like so many politicians, however, Clinton is not above using a weighty moment to attempt some score-settling, as in his remarks yesterday at The Riverside Church. Most news reports focused on Clinton's chutzpah-laden charge that "our friends on the other side have become the people of the Nine Commandments" because of TV ads from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Columnist Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Clinton weighing in on two non-negotiable planks of the Sexual Revolution:
Clinton took up a pair of issues, the labeling of pro-choice advocates as "pro-abortion," and the demonizing of gay and lesbian relationships using Old Testament scriptural references.
"I have yet to meet anyone who is for abortion," said the former president. He argued that being for choice means safeguarding a deeply personal decision that should be made in the privacy of the family.
"I'm not ashamed to say gay people shouldn't be discriminated against, and I don't think Jesus had much to say on the subject," Clinton added.
Clinton's remarks were part of announcements regarding the Riverside-backed Mobilization 2004 campaign. The sermon was by the Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Stiers on the theme of "Come to the Banquet." (No texts or cassettes of the sermon or of Clinton's remarks are yet available on Riverside's website, but Sunday's order of worship is here.)
So far as Connelly is concerned, Mobilization 2004 is the sweet voice of reason, as opposed to the Christian Right:
Mobilization 2004 aims not only to put the faithful on the streets but to reach voters' minds. If successful, it will provide an alternative to the heavily ideological "Voters Guides" distributed by such religious right groups as the Christian Coalition.
The principles include -- but go beyond -- the Protestant churches' historic social justice theme of responsibility for children, the disadvantaged and the elderly. As an example, Principle No. 6 says: "Disdain the Arrogance of Power."
It reads: "Does the policy show humility before the governed, and respect the need for checks and balances on power? Does it fall victim to the hubris of ideological certainty, or a sense of entitlement to govern?"
Principle No. 7 takes up a similar theme: "Guard Freedom of Thought and Discussion: Does the policy provide for free press, free discussion, the expression of dissent, along with fair and just methods of participation in the democratic process."
Such are not principles generally associated with such administration figures as Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
There's absolutely no ideology in those principles, heavens no.
I've not found a single story today that questions whether Clinton's remarks at Riverside might just qualify, ever so slightly, as electioneering from a church pulpit. So far there has been no horrified reaction from Americans United, The Interfaith Alliance or Sojourners. (But you can watch Sojourners' cartoonish perceptions of the Christian Right here. This video makes Choice Chick look like high art by comparison.)
Julia Malone of Cox News Service explored some of these questions on Aug. 13, reporting that Americans United has sometimes protested pro-Democrat breaches of the church-state wall o' separation:
Americans United executive director Barry W. Lynn insisted that his group does not target conservatives. He noted that they are also seeking an IRS probe of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, where the Rev. Gregory Groover welcomed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Palm Sunday as "the next president of the United States."
In an interview Thursday, the pastor said, "I am personally a registered Democrat and have been all of my voting years, but I do not as a reverend endorse any candidates." His introduction of Kerry was "absolutely not" an endorsement, he said.
Don Parker, spokesman for the liberal-leaning Interfaith Alliance, which officially opposes all partisan politics in the pulpit, said that black churches are not scrutinized as strictly. "There has to be a historical understanding" of the special political and civil rights role of African-American churches in their communities, he said.
At a forum last March in Washington, a board member of the Interfaith Alliance, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. of New York City's Riverside Church, said that he will be tacitly endorsing the Democrat from the pulpit.
"When I stand up in front of my congregation and tell them what principles I think our faith would cause us to concentrate on, they pretty much get the impression," said the noted black minister, who added wryly: "I don't have to call anybody's name."