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Clintons' call for prayer moves religious leaders.

President Clinton was tanned and relaxed the morning after his 10-day vacation. He spoke warmly and engagingly at the White House to 86 religious officials about his hope of creating a "new sense of common purpose" for the nation. He won approval from his audience when he stated that "freedom of religion doesn't mean that we need to try to have freedom from religion." He affirmed boldly that "those of us who have faith" should freely admit that "we are animated by that faith, that we try to live by it and that it does affect what we feel, what we think, what we do."

Mrs. Clinton opened the Aug. 30 breakfast with a plea to the interfaith group to continue its prayers for the president and his administration. She introduced Jesuit Fr. Otto Hentz, one of Clinton's professors at Georgetown University in the 1960s, for the opening prayer. Hentz's invocation set the tone for what participants afterward agreed was a remarkable spiritual experience.

Although the White House staff made it clear the interfaith breakfast was on the record, they made no special effort to let the world know that the president and vice president and their wives spent two hours with some of the top religious leaders in the nation. Future dialogues were suggested but no specifics were offered.

The religious authorities present were delighted with the sincerity and openness of the White House. More than one noted they had not been inside the White House during the past 12 years. The 15 Jewish representatives seemed pleased that they had access to the president; they and everyone applauded when Clinton pledged to continue to work vigorously for the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - a measure that will modify a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which two years ago restricted the religious freedom of American Indians and others.

The 12 Catholics present included three prelates - Bishops Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Francis P. Murphy of Baltimore. The 59 Protestant and Orthodox representatives - a broadly diverse group - left the White House impressed and, indeed, inspired at the obvious depth of convictions behind the Clintons' appeal for prayers.

Veteran White House observers going back to Eisenhower remarked that they had never heard any president state so compellingly that he relied upon the prayers of the nation's religious community.

The president apparently set aside the address prepared for him and spoke from the heart. Convictions based on faith will be needed to solve health issues where the nation must "slay some dragons of special interest," he said. Religious faith will also be needed to resolve economic problems, he went on.

"I've had a lot of time to think the last few days," he said. He expressed pain that "there are cities in this country where the average murderer is now under the age of 16," and that "these kids can get their hands on semiautomatic weapons."

The invitees could be described as liberal and progressive rather than conservative and reactionary. But it would not be accurate to describe them as left-leaning or antiestablishment. One could not escape the conviction that the Clintons have deep faith and that they wanted the nation's religious leaders to pray for them and help "rediscover a common ground."

Occupants of the White House risk being perceived as cultivating or even exploiting religion for their own objectives. The press and public remember How the alliance between the Reagan administration and the Moral Majority damaged both the White House and the religious fundamentalist movement.

But there is a way the White House can communicate with religious leaders, as it does with leaders of business, labor, education and the arts. The Clinton White House, in the judgment of this participant, has begun a meaningful conversation at a time when, as Clinton observed, the world is "moving into a new age when no one has all the answers."
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Title Annotation:Aug. 30, 1993 conference
Author:Drinan, Robert F.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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