President Clinton, speaking Thursday (August 10) at lengthand frankly about his spiritual life before and after hiswell-publicized sex scandal, had a tough audience for his soulfulrevelations.Some of the evangelical leaders gathered at Willow Creek CommunityChurch outside Chicago had criticized the decision to include thepresident on the agenda at a leadership summit designed to encouragethem in their work. Yet Clinton turned the group into a collectiveconfessor of sorts."I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totallyrebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made," he said in response toquestions from his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Bill Hybels, at Hybels'megachurch in South Barrington, Ill. "I realized once you've actuallyhad to stand up and ask for forgiveness before the whole wide world, itmakes it a little harder to be as hard as I think I once was on otherpeople."The audience gave him a standing ovation at the close of the onstageinterview.But his comments at the gathering sponsored by the Willow CreekAssociation, an organization that provides training and resources tochurches, drew mixed reaction.Despite the applause, some who weren't there say the president hasnot done enough to atone for his sins."The Hybels-Willow Creek appearance could not be called a repentancesession," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty Universityand pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va."If your sin is public, your confession should be public. If youviolated Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky or Kathleen Willey in anyway, do as public an apology as they were publicly offended. That hasnever happened and I don't think it ever will."Falwell said he was skeptical of the timing of the remarks, justdays before Vice President Gore would be named the Democratic nomineefor president. He said he recently predicted that "Mr. Clinton willout-repent Jimmy Swaggart" before the Democratic National Conventionheard Gore's acceptance speech.Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and ReligiousLiberty Commission, agreed that Clinton still has not said enough."As far as I'm concerned, he has not sufficiently apologized to theAmerican people for both his actions and his lying about it," Land said.Hybels, on the other hand, said Clinton was so candid that skepticswho did not hear the president themselves should try to get their handson a recording of the event."After hearing the president today, it is crystal clear he has askedfor forgiveness for his mistakes and is on a journey of spiritualrestoration and growth," Hybels said in a statement issued Friday.The Rev. Gordon MacDonald, a New Hampshire-based writer and speakerwho continues to meet regularly with Clinton along with two otherspiritual advisers, said the president's comments were similar to thosehe has had in his private discussions."The president's remarks [Thursday] were thoroughly consistent witheverything we have known about him during the past two years," MacDonaldsaid in a written response to questions from Religion News Service."There were no surprises in anything he said."Clinton said his meetings with Hybels and the sessions he's had forthe last two years with MacDonald; the Rev. Philip Wogaman, a UnitedMethodist pastor in Washington; and the Rev. Tony Campolo, anevangelical leader based in St. Davids, Pa., "really kind of keeps meanchored."Leaders of the Willow Creek Association felt the need to explainbefore the event why they let the president speak at the evangelicalsummit.
"This interview segment with President Clinton is in no way a signof support for any political party, position, or politician," said JimMellado, president of the Willow Creek Association in a carefully wordedstatement. "Instead, we view this as one more opportunity for leadersworking on behalf of Christ and his kingdom to benefit from lessonsabout leadership learned through both successes and failures."Hybels told Clinton during the interview that some critics, uponlearning of the planned session, said the president "had never reallyapologized."Clinton responded: "I think I gave a clear, unambiguous, brutallyfrank, and, frankly, personally painful statement to me because I had todo it," he said. "I mean, I finally realized that ... it would never beall right unless I stood up there and said what I did and said it waswrong and apologized for it."Land, who had not heard Clinton's latest comments when he wasinterviewed Friday by Religion News Service, said Sen. Joseph Liebermanhad been more forthright about the president's actions.The senator, chosen Tuesday as Gore's running mate for theDemocratic presidential ticket, was the first prominent member of thepresident's political party to publicly condemn Clinton's affair with aWhite House intern."It's not a mistake," said Land. "It's not even a terrible mistake.It was a tragic lapse of morality for which he and he alone isresponsible."Land added that it was less embarrassing for Clinton to reveal hispersonal thoughts before a gathering of evangelicals that hardly knowhim than his Democratic pals who are about to gather for the DemocraticNational Convention."It gets the job done but on a less nationally prominent stage andin front of far fewer friends," he said. "What did he have to lose withthis group?"The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs forthe National Association of Evangelicals, said some people think Clintonused the event for political purposes, but Clinton was probably at homewith a group of "forgiving" Christians."You combine that audience of moral integrity along with ourcommitment--excuse me, requirement--of forgiveness, and you canunderstand why the president went there," he said.The Clinton-Hybels session--which at times looked like a windowinto far more private times of counsel between the two men--drew 4,500people to the sanctuary of the megachurch and more than 6,300 others whowatched in 15 North American locations via satellite."People do have their opinions and convictions on the man and theissues that relate to him," said the Rev. Jerry Butler, theassociation's vice president of membership and communication. "Therewere some quite negative reactions, feeling it was inappropriate to havehim."