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God and the Oval Office : Clinton's reflections on values and religion should trigger worthy debate

September 05, 1993

The historic separation of church and state in America, and the country's remarkable pluralism in the 20th Century, have given us great diversity as a nation.

But do privately held value systems need to be confined to the arenas of worship or moments of reflection, and kept apart from our collective aspirations and efforts on behalf of society? At an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Washington last week, President Clinton touched a raw nerve in American life when he suggested that values and religious beliefs were not just for the Sabbath alone.

On the face of it, it was hardly a controversial observation. It would be hard to disagree with the assertion that ordinary Americans should apply their beliefs in their daily lives and to the problems of the world. Many of course, do just that, without a nudge from the Oval Office.

But it is also true that as a nation, we have trod cautiously in this sensitive area of beliefs and norms, with good reason. In part, it's out of a shared assumption that religion is largely a private matter, and in part it arises from our political tradition, with its concern with the rights of the minority and its abhorrence of zealotry. The towering First Amendment has helped the country to get where it is by prohibiting the establishment of an official state religion, and by guaranteeing freedom of worship.

Today, however, many people are frustrated with society's inability to cope with its enormously complex problems. In the face of the failure of purely secular approaches to get at the root of our difficulties, some wonder how we can marshal the best of our common values and beliefs to the task.

For example, in Chicago in recent days, representatives of the world's faiths met at the Parliament of the World's Religions to search out common ground, to see, among other things, if problems brought on by centuries of religious fanaticism could somehow be better addressed.

The path to applying these religious or moral values to society's problems does have its hazards. Credit the President and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for diving into the fray. She has talked about how normative values should inform private conduct to build a better community. Through their interest in the tricky confluence of private beliefs and public actions, they in effect have begun to challenge the idea that discussion of values has to be ceded as the exclusive province of the so-called religious right.

In his speech last week, the President did not answer every concern and address every delicate nuance of the fine line between religious conviction and political action. But it is heartening to see the Administration trying to contribute, without flinching, to the growing search for ways of applying common values to common problems.

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