As Pope John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, and through the magisterium, serves as the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), particularly through its teaching of truth regarding moral action.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than the tragedy of abortion, especially in contrast to where some (but certainly not all) Protestants stand on the issue, including two extremely influential Protestants: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
No president did as much to advance legalized abortion as Bill Clinton, who is now poised to be exceeded in that capacity only by his spouse, who has an exceedingly good chance of becoming our next president, and no doubt will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for 2008.
Their positions on abortion are well-known, though the manner in which they have been guided into those positions by their churches is not. That spiritual misdirection is shocking and appalling, and illustrates the dangers of an ever-proliferating number of Christian ministers and denominations that veer in all sorts of directions as they struggle to ascertain moral truth, all without the guide of the magisterium that eternally benefits Catholics.
First, consider the case of Bill Clinton.
When Clinton was first elected governor of Arkansas in the late 1970s, he joined a conservative Baptist congregation in Little Rock called First Immanuel Baptist Church, where he came under the profound influence of a minister named W.O. Vaught. The two frequently conversed not only about the preacher’s sermons but about how Clinton’s faith should be incorporated into his public life.
How the two dealt with the abortion issue is particularly interesting. The young governor was reportedly troubled, personally ambivalent. Though he sided with the “pro-choice” argument intellectually, and felt the pressure of his wife’s religious-like dedication to Roe v. Wade, something inside of Bill Clinton — his conscience, presumably — was prompting questions, perhaps even second thoughts.
The governor was struggling over the definition of human life. Could his preacher go to his Bible and help out?
Vaught’s reaction was detailed by David Maraniss, an early Clinton biographer: Vaught was one of the leading abortion opponents among Little Rock clergy, but said he shared some of Clinton’s ambivalence, having personally witnessed “some extremely difficult” pregnancy cases as a pastor.
He was not convinced that the Bible forbade abortion in all circumstances. What he most likely meant by this was that there were not literal Biblical passages on “abortion” condemning or describing precisely what a woman should do in each situation.
So, the minister dug into the Hebrew and Greek. Vaught determined that in the original Hebrew, “personhood” stemmed from words translated as “to breathe life into.”
Thus, he averred, the Bible would define a person’s life as beginning at birth, with the first intake of breath. He reportedly told the governor that this did not mean that abortion was right, but he felt that one could not say definitively, based on Scripture alone, that it was murder.
Vaught’s view was instrumental.
According to Maraniss, “In all of his discussions about abortion thereafter, Clinton relied on his minister’s interpretation to bolster his pro-choice position.”
Interestingly, Bill Clinton himself later concluded that life begins at conception, a point he stated publicly years after Vaught passed away in 1989. Perhaps Clinton understood or learned that the unborn human in the womb does in fact breathe, gaining oxygen into its body and developing lungs through its mother.
Moreover, many Protestants who followed Vaught would conclude that the unborn human was in fact a life, and terminating that life constituted murder or killing, in this case of a helpless innocent, which the Bible forbids.
Pro-life Protestants began identifying Bible passages and stories about God knowing and weaving humans in the womb, about the humanity of life in the womb. Jacob engaged in conflict in the womb. One of Tamar’s twins was marked in the womb. Most notably, John the Baptist leaped for joy in the womb when encountering the presence of the Christ Child in Mary’s womb.
As they began finding supportive examples in their Bibles, they spread the word to other Protestants. Among the most striking, which could have been especially helpful to Vaught, is the passage from Ecclesiastes (11:5) that speaks of the “breath of life” fashioning the human frame in the womb.
Of course, at the time of Vaught’s counsel, the Catholic Church was already strongly committed to the pro-life position. It had come to that position not through invocation of a Bible passage proscribing “abortion” but through the means that the Roman Catholic Church has used for centuries to ascertain moral truth.
As a Catholic, I sympathize with Vaught. He may have felt in his heart that abortion was wrong, but it was up to him alone — with the option of consulting other “Bible Christians” — to study his Bible in order to assemble the collection of Scriptural references to eventually point him to the same conclusion as the Church in Rome.
The structure of the Catholic Church is such that determining truth is not a process left to each and every pastor at each and every congregation based on personal discernment of the Hebrew or Greek, or through some form of “private revelation.” But he alone was the magisterium — one man serving as the pope, the cardinals, the bishops — to his 4,000-member flock, an impossible, daunting task, a terrible burden.
His flock awaited his conclusions for instruction. So did the Democratic governor and future leader of the free world.
And what about Hillary Clinton?
Bill Clinton ended up firmly in the camp of his wife on the abortion issue. One day, pro-lifers would dub him, “the abortion president.”
His wife scores a 100% rating from NARAL and a 0% rating from the National Right to Life Committee. While, like Bill, she is willing to compromise on numerous political issues, she will not budge on abortion. It is neither uncharitable nor inaccurate — nor name calling — to say that on the subject of abortion Hillary Clinton is fanatical.
There is no issue that impassions her more. She has not changed her position on any meaningful life issue, from federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to banning partial-birth abortions to supporting funding for ultrasound machines to backing legislation to protect babies injured in the womb by outside parties.
But here is maybe the saddest part of her intransigence: As a lifelong committed Methodist, Hillary sees no contradiction in supporting abortion. Quite the contrary, she points to her church’s leadership as a source of guidance.
After all, her denomination, the United Methodist Church, is pro-abortion — a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, along with a bunch of other Protestant denominations.
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline — the equivalent of a Catechism to Hillary — remains a major source of guidance for her on moral questions. It states unequivocally: “We support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.”
The United Methodist Church’s official statements on abortion have reinforced Hillary. Naturally, then, it is no surprise that Hillary says of the United Methodist denomination, “I’m comfortable in this church.”
Her church is not only pro-abortion but has opened its pulpit to no less than the author of Roe v. Wade. Indeed, one day in 1995, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, a fellow Methodist, was invited to address Hillary’s congregation, the historic Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. He was invited by her pro-abortion pastor — J. Philip Wogaman, president of the American Theological Society, professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Society, and one of the top Methodist theologians in the country.
Hillary’s consistency with her denomination on legalized abortion was emphasized to me by her close friend and former obstetrician-gynecologist, William Harrison, the nationally known Fayetteville, Ark., abortion doctor, who was interviewed at length for my book.
Harrison, also a Methodist, talked of how abortion providers are counting on a President Hillary Clinton. Asked if he would expect Hillary to change George Bush’s pro-life policies, Harrison exclaimed: “Oh, absolutely. … I hope to God she does.”
Though in his 70s, Harrison does not want to slow his rate of activity at his Fayetteville Women’s Clinic; he plans to continue to perform about 1,200 abortions per year. The key, says Harrison, will be whether the electorate can “appreciate” both the Clintons, whom he says history will judge “with a much more reasoned and rational mind than the idiots who have hated [them], seemingly for no more reason than Christ was hated.”
Well, as Catholics we have reasoned that Christ hates abortion. Thankfully, we have a magisterium to set us straight on that.
Protestants, however, do not, and in the case of some Protestant denominations, and of two particular Protestants — Bill and Hillary Clinton — the results have been fatal, and may be far from finished.
Paul Kengor’s new book,
God and Hillary Clinton,
is published by HarperCollins.