Bill Clinton, God, and Oklahoma City

Bill Clinton, God, and Oklahoma City March 18, 2019

For multiple reasons, I am not a particular fan of Bill Clinton. But one speech of his always strikes me as a singular landmark in modern US political history, and specifically in matters of religion and the public square. If the rhetoric is not quite up there with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, it does demand our attention.

On April 19, 1995, neo-Nazi terrorists blew up the Murragh federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. Some days later, Clinton delivered a widely praised speech at the Memorial Prayer Service. Remember, this is a leader with Arkansas roots speaking in Oklahoma, so a religious element was inevitable. But just how religious, and how evangelical, must still startle. You may recall that George W. Bush was always criticized for his religious rhetoric, and even for his supposed “theocratic” tendencies (which was downright silly). But Clinton actually used far more explicitly religious language than Bush (or Reagan), far more overtly, and more frequently, and this speech is such a crying example.

So what did he say? First, he clearly framed the attack as a sin: “This terrible sin took the lives of our American family, innocent children in that building.” And as to the grief of the survivors? “We cannot undo it. That is God’s work.”

But then look at the second half of the speech:

To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life. Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. [Proverbs 11:29].

Justice will prevail.

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” [Romans 12:21] Yesterday, Hillary and I had the privilege of speaking with some children of other federal employees — children like those who were lost here. And one little girl said something we will never forget. She said, “We should all plant a tree in memory of the children.” So this morning before we got on the plane to come here, at the White House, we planted that tree in honor of the children of Oklahoma. It was a dogwood with its wonderful spring flower and its deep, enduring roots. It embodies the lesson of the Psalms — that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither [Psalms 1:3].

My fellow Americans, a tree takes a long time to grow, and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin. Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.

Thank you all, and God bless you.

As I read it, this goes far beyond civil religion, or the generalized language of “thoughts and prayers.” Look at the explicitly Christian references throughout, the Biblical reminiscences, and not just in the Pauline quotation. It was in its way a daring speech. Clinton “spoke evangelical” fluently.

Whether under our present incumbent or a successor, I wonder if we will ever again hear anything so centered in faith, and specifically in Christian thought and language?


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