Keeping Faith

Meet some religious leaders, like Bill Clinton's Pastor, who are working to restore mercy, compassion, and justice to our national vocabulary. And getting smeared by the Christian right for doing so.

It was bleak November when, in the middle of the budget showdown between Congress and the executive branch, the Republicans' controversial welfare reform package was headed to the president's desk. The New York Times speculated that Clinton, not known for being stalwart, would sign the bill. He had, after all, campaigned on the issue of welfare reform.

Nonetheless, the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, planned for more than the standard photo opportunity when she accepted an invitation to make a formal White House presentation opposing the bill. The invitation came after Clinton learned of a resolution passed by her organization, which represents 33 denominations, calling upon Congress and the administration not to dismantle the nation's social safety net.

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"When Christians have their backs to the wall, they pray," Campbell told Clinton, standing before him with the 14 other clerics she'd brought with her. One of the most powerful forms of Christian prayer is expressed in the laying on of hands, a practice more common to African-American and Pentecostal denominations than to white, mainline Protestant churches. After describing this ancient form of ministry, Campbell asked the leader of the Free World if he'd consent. And so, right there in the Oval Office, with 30 hands touching the presidential shoulders, Bishop Nathaniel Linsey of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church asked God to "make the president strong for the task" of protecting society's most vulnerable. Clinton was moved to weep.

When the bill finally reached his desk in January, the president vetoed the Republican plan to demolish the nation's welfare system.

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