President Clinton, speaking Thursday (August 10) at length
and frankly about his spiritual life before and after his
well-publicized sex scandal, had a tough audience for his soulful
Some of the evangelical leaders gathered at Willow Creek Community
Church outside Chicago had criticized the decision to include the
president on the agenda at a leadership summit designed to encourage
them in their work. Yet Clinton turned the group into a collective
confessor of sorts.
"I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totally
rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made," he said in response to
questions from his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Bill Hybels, at Hybels'
megachurch in South Barrington, Ill. "I realized once you've actually
had to stand up and ask for forgiveness before the whole wide world, it
makes it a little harder to be as hard as I think I once was on other
The audience gave him a standing ovation at the close of the onstage
But his comments at the gathering sponsored by the Willow Creek
Association, an organization that provides training and resources to
churches, drew mixed reaction.
Despite the applause, some who weren't there say the president has
not done enough to atone for his sins.
"The Hybels-Willow Creek appearance could not be called a repentance
session," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University
and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
"If your sin is public, your confession should be public. If you
violated Gennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky or Kathleen Willey in any
way, do as public an apology as they were publicly offended. That has
never happened and I don't think it ever will."
Falwell said he was skeptical of the timing of the remarks, just
days before Vice President Gore would be named the Democratic nominee
for president. He said he recently predicted that "Mr. Clinton will
out-repent Jimmy Swaggart" before the Democratic National Convention
heard Gore's acceptance speech.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious
Liberty Commission, agreed that Clinton still has not said enough.
"As far as I'm concerned, he has not sufficiently apologized to the
American people for both his actions and his lying about it," Land said.
Hybels, on the other hand, said Clinton was so candid that skeptics
who did not hear the president themselves should try to get their hands
on a recording of the event.
"After hearing the president today, it is crystal clear he has asked
for forgiveness for his mistakes and is on a journey of spiritual
restoration and growth," Hybels said in a statement issued Friday.
The Rev. Gordon MacDonald, a New Hampshire-based writer and speaker
who continues to meet regularly with Clinton along with two other
spiritual advisers, said the president's comments were similar to those
he has had in his private discussions.
"The president's remarks [Thursday] were thoroughly consistent with
everything we have known about him during the past two years," MacDonald
said 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 for
the last two years with MacDonald; the Rev. Philip Wogaman, a United
Methodist pastor in Washington; and the Rev. Tony Campolo, an
evangelical leader based in St. Davids, Pa., "really kind of keeps me
Leaders of the Willow Creek Association felt the need to explain
before the event why they let the president speak at the evangelical
"This interview segment with President Clinton is in no way a sign
of support for any political party, position, or politician," said Jim
Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association in a carefully worded
statement. "Instead, we view this as one more opportunity for leaders
working on behalf of Christ and his kingdom to benefit from lessons
about leadership learned through both successes and failures."
Hybels told Clinton during the interview that some critics, upon
learning of the planned session, said the president "had never really
Clinton responded: "I think I gave a clear, unambiguous, brutally
frank, and, frankly, personally painful statement to me because I had to
do it," he said. "I mean, I finally realized that ... it would never be
all right unless I stood up there and said what I did and said it was
wrong and apologized for it."
Land, who had not heard Clinton's latest comments when he was
interviewed Friday by Religion News Service, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman
had been more forthright about the president's actions.
The senator, chosen Tuesday as Gore's running mate for the
Democratic presidential ticket, was the first prominent member of the
president's political party to publicly condemn Clinton's affair with a
White 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 is
Land added that it was less embarrassing for Clinton to reveal his
personal thoughts before a gathering of evangelicals that hardly know
him than his Democratic pals who are about to gather for the Democratic
"It gets the job done but on a less nationally prominent stage and
in front of far fewer friends," he said. "What did he have to lose with
The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for
the National Association of Evangelicals, said some people think Clinton
used the event for political purposes, but Clinton was probably at home
with a group of "forgiving" Christians.
"You combine that audience of moral integrity along with our
commitment--excuse me, requirement--of forgiveness, and you can
understand why the president went there," he said.
The Clinton-Hybels session--which at times looked like a window
into far more private times of counsel between the two men--drew 4,500
people to the sanctuary of the megachurch and more than 6,300 others who
watched in 15 North American locations via satellite.
"People do have their opinions and convictions on the man and the
issues that relate to him," said the Rev. Jerry Butler, the
association's vice president of membership and communication. "There
were some quite negative reactions, feeling it was inappropriate to have
Butler said those sentiments remained among some participants after
the event, but he considered it an "unprecedented" opportunity to hear
the president reflect on his personal life.
"It was probably the most genuine forum that Clinton has been in
with evangelical pastors and church leaders," Butler said.
Clinton's remarks included far more about his spiritual life than
introspection about his moral failings. He spoke of becoming a Christian
at the age of 9 in 1955 after being touched by the words of a Hot
Springs, Ark., minister.
"He convinced me that I needed to acknowledge that I was a sinner
and that I needed to accept Christ in my heart, and I did," Clinton
He spoke of being inspired by the Rev. Billy Graham's commitment to
integration and enjoying his membership in a Southern Baptist church
choir while serving as Arkansas governor. He called his attendance at
Wogaman's Foundry United Methodist Church "one of the best hours of the
week for me."
And, finally, in addition to asking that people not condemn Gore for
mistakes his boss made, Clinton asked for similar treatment of Hybels.
"He didn't fail in his ministry because I did," he said of the
megachurch pastor. "And for those of you who have whatever political or
personal differences you have, I hope you will still believe that he did
the right thing. Because he did."