A couple of days ago Terry Mattingly, who covers religion for the Scripps News Service, had a post about Bill Clinton's speech at the New Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta. During his speech, Clinton related a story about a meeting he had in 1993 in the White House with Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention's new President. At the time Young was, and still is, pastor of a church in Houston. Here is Mattingly on what Clinton had to say about their conversation, in a speech before thousands:
Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young "looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. ... Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.'
"I said, 'Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.' He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.' "
After receiving a copy of the address you delivered at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta, I have asked for divine wisdom as to how I should respond. Initially, I was stunned. Your comments concerning our visit together were not just taken out of context; the conversation you described never took place. Certainly we did not agree on many issues. You were gracious, patient, and transparent. I was impressed with you as a person and with your willingness to allow others to share with you. I certainly was not confrontational, and on several occasions we simply politely agreed to disagree. . . .
The most important thing I wish to correct is that I have never asked you nor anyone else the question, "Do you believe the Bible is literally true?" I do not believe the Bible is literally, in the normal definition of the word, true. Jesus said, "I am the door." No one takes that "literally." As you know, Sir, in the Bible there are metaphors, parables, hyperbole, poetry, apocalyptic language, etc., and the Bible cannot be understood by anyone who would be foolish enough to think that you can take the Word of God literally. Also, at no time during our visit did I use the pejorative phrase, "slick political answer."
I think this is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. First, I think Clinton got caught in a public lie, not for the first time. I like Clinton; I think he was a good President. I also think that all Presidents lie; there is something about the nature of the job that invites dishonesty. But this was an unnecessary lie. There were no national secrets at stake. And that leads me to my second point. I think Clinton also violated confidentiality by making public the contents of a private conversation, albeit an apparently made up one. I suspect Young was surprised to read press reports of Clinton sharing details of a private conversation. He shouldn't have done it.
Finally, the primary reason I relate this back and forth conversation is that it reminds me to be careful about language when talking about conservative Christians. Don't they believe the Bible is "literally true?" Not really; they understand as well as I do that the Bible is full of metaphor and poetry, as Young suggests in his response. The real fault line is around issues of inerrancy. To what extent is the scripture without error? Fundamentalists and conservatives don't always have the same answer on this issue, but most settle on some version of the idea that in their original autographs the scripture is without error. This allows for the possibility of human error to have crept into the text through transcription and editorial license, and calls, therefore, for textual criticism and biblical scholarship to sift through the manuscripts. But still, they would say, even with whatever human error has made its way in the original intent can be determined. But there was once an authentic, original autograph that captured without error the mind of God.
I disagree with this, of course, and don't think there was ever a moment when humans encountered the divine in a way that is different than we do, through the glass darkly. This means there is always error. This means, for me, that I view the scriptures as human creations; humans seeking to convey what they believed was divine wisdom. I read the scriptures reverently because they are the repository of thousands of years of spiritual reflections, and they have shaped the course of human life and human history. But however true the wisdom contained in them might have been for their time, it may not always be true for ours.
It is important, though, to accurately convey the nature of the differences between conservatives and liberals.