[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1995, Book II)]
[September 8, 1995]
[Pages 1327-1332]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 1327]]

Remarks at a Breakfast With Religious Leaders
September 8, 1995

    Thank you very much, and welcome to the White House. I thank the 
Vice President for his wonderful introduction. I earnestly hope someday 
he won't have to close his eye when he reads the--[laughter]. Thank you. 
I cannot tell you all the wonderful contributions he's made to our 
country and to me and my family, but I can say that when my term in this 
job is over, one of the things that I will get credit for, even among 
people who disagree with nearly everything I do, is that I made a good 
decision when I picked a Vice President, and he then became clearly the 
most influential person ever to be in the Vice President's office in the 
history of this--[applause].
    I have come to very much look forward to this breakfast. As I think 
most of you know, this is the third such breakfast we have had with 
leaders of faith from all walks of life, from all over our country, at 
about this time when we come back from vacation, our children go back to 
school, and we here in Washington have to go back to work. That itself 
is an act of faith sometimes. [Laughter] And a lot of you know that I 
have been very interested in the role of faith in public life and in the 
life of public persons for many years, since long before I became 
    Two years ago, I spoke about the profound impact on me of Stephen 
Carter's book, ``The Culture of Disbelief,'' and I don't know whether 
Mr. Carter's forgiven me or not, yet. It's changed his life a little bit 
anyway since we talked about that. But Carter made an important point, 
that we simply, in this, the most religious of all countries and a 
country that in our Constitution protects the right of everyone to 
believe or not as he or she sees fit, we have to make room for something 
that important in the public square. And we have to do it in a way that 
recognizes that most American of rights, the right to differ.
    After that experience I had reading the book and then having this 
breakfast and working on all this, we redoubled our efforts in this 
administration on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and on 
implementing and on its implications and on trying to live up to the 
spirit as well as the letter of the law in many ways that a lot of you 
are familiar with. And that is also what led me to give the speech I 
gave about the role of religion in education at James Madison High 
School in Virginia a few months ago, and then, following up on that, to 
have the Secretary of Education Dick Riley issue the guidelines that 
were just going out to all of our schools on the relationship of 
religion and public schools.
    That was a very important thing for a lot of our schoolchildren and 
educators around this country and for a lot of people in this room and 
those whom you represent. We made it clear that under our law, schools 
are not religion-free zones; we simply, under the Constitution, prohibit 
the power of Government through the schools to advance particular 
religious beliefs. But students can still pray individually or together, 
silently or aloud. Religious clubs have a right to meet, just like any 
other clubs, and to do what they wish to do. Flyers can be distributed. 
Homework and other assignments can even be used to express religious 
convictions by students. Religion can be a part of the curriculum of 
public education as long as particular views are not advocated.
    I think this is a very important thing. There are those who say that 
they think more should be done, and I think that part of it is they feel 
that, unless our young people, particularly those who may not be subject 
to religious influences, understand the basic values behind the great 
religions that our country permits to flourish and encourages to 
flourish, they might not grow up to be the kind of citizens they ought 
to be. So we've also done a lot of work on what has popularly been 
called character education in our country, trying to emphasize to our 
schools and to encourage them to teach the basic values of good 
citizenship, values that make a good life.
    Secretary Riley has been extremely supportive and a strong advocate 
of what he calls the moral code that holds us together. In teaching that 
in our schools, teaching our students to be honest and trustworthy, 
reliable, to have respect for themselves, for others, for property, and 
for our natural environment, to be good citizens, and also to do the 
things that I advocated a

[[Page 1328]]

few months ago when I spoke at my alma mater, Georgetown University, to 
treat one another with civility and tolerance and to exercise personal 
responsibility. After all, if we all did what we were supposed to, we 
wouldn't have to spend so much time talking to other people--
[laughter]--and neither would anybody else.
    And this character education movement, I predict to you, will do 
quite well in this country. There will be more and more and more 
deliberate efforts to teach these values in our public schools. There is 
evidence already that in the schools that have a thoroughgoing, 
comprehensive, disciplined commitment to this, the dropout rate is down, 
and the student performance is up. That's because you basically can't 
live without values. You've got some. It's just a question of what they 
are. And it's important to be explicit about them, and you can do that 
within the framework of the first amendment.
    So if any of you are more interested in that, we can get you the 
information on what the Department of Education is doing. I just 
announced in California a couple of days ago that we have actually put 
out modest grants to four States to help school districts in those 
States develop comprehensive character education programs.
    Let me say, the freshest evidence that this is important is a recent 
study, a very, very large study of young people and drug use that Joe 
Califano brought to my attention about 3 weeks ago that said that the 
three major determinants in whether young people use drugs or not was 
whether they had a strong relationship with their parents, whether they 
tended to believe in the future and be optimistic about it, and whether 
they had a connection to a church. Those three things were the three 
repeating constants in what is otherwise an incredible kaleidoscope of 
different life circumstances that lead young people either to use drugs 
or to refrain from using them. So I think that is important.
    The Vice President talked about the night we had--I might say, it 
made a special night for us because he and I went to Baltimore with his 
son and my daughter, and each of them brought a friend. So we got to see 
this great event through the eyes of children. And the thing that struck 
me about it was that everybody was so happy and nobody resented Mr. 
Ripken's success. Not a person. I don't think a person in the country. 
Why? Because it was about more than talent, success, and making several 
million dollars a year. It was about showing up for work every day--
[laughter]--and sticking with your team. It wasn't about who got the 
best contract, who made the best deal. It was about keeping your end of 
the bargain.
    And I think one of the reasons that people were so ecstatic about it 
is that it was an exceptional example of what most people try to do in 
their own lives every day. When I got home from California the night the 
record was tied, it was about midnight. And before I went to bed--I 
don't know about you, but when I get off an airplane and come in the 
house, I can't just plop down and go to sleep. So I turned on the 
television, and I saw the late local news. And there was a feature on 
the local news in Virginia of a bus driver who had not missed a day's 
work in 18 years. And here was this bus driver, he never would have been 
on television before, and they were doing a feature on him.
    And the local reporter was riding a bus with him. And he was meeting 
the people that he picked up every day and let off every day and talking 
about how his daddy told him he was supposed to work, that he didn't 
think there was anything unusual. Why? Why wouldn't you go 18 years and 
never miss a day's work? And I thought, that man would have never been 
on television if it hadn't been for Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's 
record. There was a reaffirmation of the idea of responsibility, 
personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the devotion--that guy's 
team were the people that carry the folks around every day. Pretty 
important team. And I think it sort of reinforced to me this idea that 
in spite of all the differences in this country, there really are a lot 
of things that bind us together, that we believe very deeply.
    I appreciate what the Vice President said about the First Lady. I 
wish she could be here today. She's getting home sometime tonight. But I 
think that that speech she gave resonated so powerfully across the world 
because it was elemental, basic, true, profound in the simplicity of the 
things that we all know, things that we all know we should do, things we 
all know we shouldn't do and shouldn't permit if we can stop. And it was 
a very powerful thing because it brought people together.
    Now, I think that's very important today in America because of the 
kind of things that are going on. And I just want to talk very briefly

[[Page 1329]]

about that and the work we're about to undertake here.
    In many ways, the big trends in America look good. Economically we 
have 7 million more jobs, 2\1/2\ million more homeowners. We're creating 
new businesses at a rate of 750,000 a year, by far the highest rate in 
American history. We have low inflation, high growth. By any standard, 
this is about the best combined economic picture in 20 years. African-
American unemployment rate below 10 percent for the first time since the 
Vietnam war. A lot of the social indicators are encouraging. In almost 
every major city in America, the crime rate is down, the welfare rolls 
are down, the food stamp rolls are down.
    A lot of the cultural things are encouraging. The divorce rate is 
down. The abortion rate is down. There are signs that people are 
beginning to get together even in troubled places. The United States has 
been honored to be a force for peace in the last 3 years in Northern 
Ireland and South Africa and the Middle East, in Haiti. We even see 
signs of hope in Bosnia. Today representatives of Bosnia, Croatia, and 
Serbia are meeting as a part of the peace initiative the United States 
has pushed so hard in Europe, and we pray for their success. They need 
to quit killing each other; it's not that much land involved. And there 
is nothing in their different religious faiths that dictates that kind 
of bloodletting.
    So there is a lot to be hopeful about, a lot of common ground to 
celebrate. But if you look at it, you'd never know that to listen to 
what we do here. And I think there is a reason for that--there are two 
reasons for that. One is the culture around here and the way we do 
business or the way it's been done for years--I haven't been here too 
long, but I'm still learning about it--and the larger reasons of what's 
going on in the world today.
    But let me deal with the basic, fundamental issues here. What worked 
for the bus driver and for Cal Ripken? Showing up for work, having the 
right attitude, working on the team, working for tomorrow, that's what 
works. What works in a church? Working together, working for the future 
around shared values. What works in a family? What works at a business? 
Not surprisingly, people don't like what they see in Washington if they 
don't see people working together and working for the future, if all 
they ever see is what are they fighting about today? What is the new 
partisan difference that is all of a sudden all the rage?
    I think we all have a common interest in balancing the budget, and 
I'm glad to see both parties' leadership now committed to doing that. 
For 2 years, we had a lonely battle here. We took the deficit from $290 
billion down to $160 billion. It was a one-party operation. And when 
that happens, you have to make decisions that in the details are so 
controversial, it's unsettling to people. When both parties work 
together, they can do it better. So I think it's great; we're going to 
balance the budget.
    Then the question is how should we do it, because it's not just a 
matter of debits and credits, it's also a matter of values and 
responsibilities. How you do this defines who you are. And I would argue 
to you that this is a much more important process today than it would 
have been a generation ago for reasons I will explain in just a moment.
    But if you believe that, then we have to ask: What are the values? 
How are we going to provide for our children's future, especially for 
their education? What do we owe the elderly in this country in terms of 
health care? Seventy-five percent of the people who are eligible for 
Medicare live on $24,000 a year or less. What do we owe to them? What do 
we owe to people like those veterans of World War II that we honored in 
Hawaii just a few days ago, who literally made the world that we are all 
living off of now, who set in motion the circumstances that permitted 
all of us in the age groups represented here to flourish? What do we owe 
to the poor and to the homeless?
    What do we owe? How do our obligations here--can they be fulfilled, 
anyway? What kind of Government do we have to have to make this stuff 
work? Yesterday, the Vice President announced his 2-year report on our 
reinventing Government project. There are 160,000 fewer people working 
for the Government now than were when I became President. About 400 
programs have been eliminated, many thousands of pages of regulations 
have been scrapped. But we've also worked very hard on improving the 
quality of Government.
    Business Week magazine evaluated all the business units in America 
that depend heavily on being successful on the phone, great companies 
like L.L. Bean and Federal Express. And they said that the Federal 
Government Social Security Administration had the most effective,

[[Page 1330]]

information-laden, courteous phone service of any major organization in 
America, which I thought was a remarkable thing, because we're in pretty 
high cotton there with those other companies. [Laughter]
    But what do we owe to the country in terms of the kind of Government 
we have and the way it performs? What are our obligations and 
responsibilities? How do all these compare with tax cuts that have been 
proposed? What do those tax cuts reflect in terms of our values? There 
are many different proposals, and they're all different. What do we get 
out of a balanced budget? I'll tell you. We get the opportunity to lift 
the burden of debt off of our children and grandchildren. We get lower 
interest rates. We free up the money that's available to be borrowed by 
people in the private sector to create new jobs. We get more growth if 
we do it right.
    But if we're penny-wise and pound-foolish, if we don't think about 
our larger values, if we don't also take care of educating our people 
and lifting up our children, even the poorest of them, then we could 
wind up with a budget that doesn't do all of those things. Prosperity 
really has to grow out of having good, shared values. We're lucky; we're 
big; we're diverse; we've got a lot of resources. But we still have to 
do the right things.
    If you look at the gentleman who was a bus driver, God gave him a 
good constitution. But a lot of healthy people don't show up for work 
every day for 18 years. Mr. Ripken is 6'4" and weighs 220 pounds, and 
not many people have a body like that. But there are a lot of people 
with bodies like that, that miss a lot of baseball games because they 
don't take care of it. They don't always do the right things.
    So we have to do the right things. And that's very important. And it 
can't just be a mechanical thing. It can't just be a political thing. It 
can't be just who's got the political power and who's got the influence 
to get this or that deal done. This is an historic obligation we have. 
And we have to do it in a way that reflects common sense and that 
reaches common ground that's higher ground. That's what I've tried to 
say when I talked about the New Covenant in the last 3 years. It's not 
just a matter of contracts and deals. This is a--we're going through a 
period of great change. And we have to reach deep down inside for the 
right things to do that will bring us together.
    Let me say that I--if ever there was a case of preaching to the 
saved, that's what I'm doing today. [Laughter] In more ways than one. A 
lot of you are involved in ministries that do this. You not only build 
the edifice of your churches, you serve the needs of your people. And 
that's what we have to do in America. And we cannot allow the usual 
partisan, divisive atmosphere which characterizes our national politics 
and which does make, frankly--to defend all the players here, many of 
whom have been here a lot longer than I have in Washington--they think 
that having these kind of differences and articulate them in a way 
that's most favorable to their constituents is the only way to 
communicate them across the vast distance that exists from Washington, 
DC, into the homes of the nearly 260 million Americans who live here, 
because it's not like being the pastor of a church or the Governor of a 
small State or the mayor of a city. They are so far from where their 
folks are, the way of doing things here tends to put a greater premium 
on words than deeds, a greater premium on positioning and division than 
production and teamwork and accomplishment. But that doesn't make it 
right. And it doesn't make it acceptable for this time.
    So I'm trying to bring a new spirit here. I'm trying to deal with a 
lot of hot-button issues that need to be dealt with in the right spirit.
    The welfare system needs to be reformed because the people that are 
on welfare hate it. Nobody wants to be dependent. So we should end 
welfare as we know it, but we ought to be mindful of the fact that we're 
doing it because our country will be better off if people are successful 
workers and successful parents. We don't need a permanently dependent 
    I'm trying to deal with the issue of crime in a responsible way that 
punishes criminals more but also seeks to prevent crime by giving our 
young people some things that they can say yes to as well as say no to.
    We're trying to deal with the issue of immigration in a way that 
says that it's wrong for people to immigrate here illegally. They may 
need to do it. It may be a good thing for their family, but from our 
point of view, since we've got folks lined up willing to wait for years, 
we have to try to enforce the immigration laws and control our borders 
and be disciplined about this. And when we look at the volume of legal 
immigration, we have to look at it in terms

[[Page 1331]]

of our ability to maintain a decent standard of living for our own 
people and to imagine what it's going to be like over a 10-year period. 
But I think to try to blame immigrants for our problems is a mistake. 
We're all a nation of immigrants. Nearly everybody came from somewhere 
    And of course, you all pretty well know what I think about the 
affirmative action issue. There are some problems in the way these 
programs have been implemented. They ought to be fixed. There are some 
of them that don't work right, and they ought to be fixed. And nobody 
has a stake in America in promoting reverse discrimination or quotas or 
giving somebody something they're not qualified to receive.
    But we should make a conscious effort to include all Americans in 
the bounty of America. Conscious effort is not the same thing as giving 
preference to unqualified people. A conscious effort is animated by the 
belief that God put within everybody the capacity to rise to higher 
levels, and we need everybody to become what we ought to be. So let's 
fix what doesn't work. But let's don't pretend that it's a bad thing to 
try to get the most out of everybody and to make effort. That's what I 
    Let me tell you why I think this is all more important now than it 
is normally. Two years ago, I recommended a book by a nonreligious 
leader, Stephen Carter. Today I'll recommend another one. I've been 
reading this. This is a fascinating book by a man named Benjamin Barber, 
whom I had the privilege to know, called ``Jihad Versus McWorld.''
    Now, let me tell you what the essential argument here is. Let me 
tell you why I believe it's important. Mr. Barber is arguing that 
democracy and the ability to hold people together and have reliable, 
predictable, good lives for people who work hard and do the right thing 
is being threatened today, first of all, by the globalization of the 
economy, which has a lot of benefits for those of us who have good 
educations and can benefit from it, with the movement of money and 
technology all across the world. But it's elevating consumerism to even 
higher and higher levels and promoting short-term gains. You watch this 
money--we watch it every day, billions and trillions of dollars moving 
across the globe in the split of an eye just because of an event here, 
an event there, an event the other place. It's very hard in those 
conditions to preserve even in the wealthy, powerful countries the 
conditions of stable, ordinary life.
    Therefore, you see what happens in America. We have 7 million new 
jobs; we have all these things that are happening that are good, but 
most hourly wage earners are working harder for the same or less money 
than they were making 10 years ago. And a lot of people feel insecure in 
their jobs because the economy is changing so much and they have no 
confidence that if they lose the job they have they can get another one 
that is just as good or better.
    So we're living in this global economy where there are a whole lot 
of winners. But a lot of people who think they do just what Cal Ripken 
and the Virginia bus driver do think they may still lose, and that's a 
big problem for America. If people think they're willing to show up 
every day, they're working hard, they're doing right by their kids, they 
wouldn't break the law, they wouldn't cheat the Government out of a 
nickel on their taxes, they wouldn't begin to do anything wrong, and 
they still may not make it, that's a problem for America.
    The other word, ``jihad,'' as you know, refers to holy war, the 
Arabic concept--Muslim concept of the holy war. It's not an anti-Muslim 
book, by the way. Islam is a beautiful religion with great values. What 
it refers to is, as people face a world that they cannot control, when 
they think that democracy is not going to work for them, that they can't 
keep the family of the United States or the family of France or Germany 
or Russia or Estonia or you name it, together, they are vulnerable--
because their nerves are raw and they have no sense of certainty--to 
extreme manifestations of people who claim to have revealed truth, so 
that the likelihood of having more conflicts rooted in ethnic, racial, 
or religious differences increases perversely as the world becomes more 
economically integrated. And he argues, I believe correctly, that it is 
even more important today for the United States of America to succeed, 
even more important today for democracy to work, even more important 
today for the basic values that we just talked about to be able to be 
made real in the lives of ordinary citizens.
    And that's why what we're doing with this budget debate is so 
important and why we have to do it right. If we don't balance the 
budget, we're going to hurt America's future. If we do it in the wrong 
way, we're going to hurt America's future.

[[Page 1332]]

    About once in 100 years this sort of thing happens. We are going 
through a level of change in the way we work and live that is comparable 
to the change we went through when we moved from being an agrarian 
society to an industrial, more urbanized society. And it took our 
country from roughly the end of the 1890's until about 1916 to sort 
through all that. I mean, it's a continuing process. But we basically 
had to decide what is the responsibility that we have as a country? What 
does the Government have to do? How will we deal with this?
    Now we're moving out of that age to a more information-based, 
technology-based age. We're moving from the cold war to the global 
economy. We're moving from the possibility of nuclear war between 
superpowers to the possibility that terrorists can carry around 
biological weapons that kill people in Japanese subways or make homemade 
bombs that blow up the World Trade Center or the Federal building in 
    Believe me, it's better that we don't have to worry as much about 
everybody being wiped out. Let's not kid ourselves. But it's important 
to realize that our great country, this family of America, has forces 
beyond it economically that are pulling at our ability to hold everybody 
together, and in reaction to the insecurity that is caused and the 
uncertainty that is caused, there are forces internally in every great 
democracy forcing people to be divided among themselves. That's why I 
said the other day, do we have to fix welfare? Yes. Affirmative action? 
Yes. Immigration problems? Yes. Is that the cause of the anxiety of the 
middle class in America? No, not really. That's not the real cause. 
That's not an excuse not to fix them; we do. But we need to know what 
the real cause is.
    And when you're living in a time like this when people are torn from 
pillar to post, having those basic values to fall back on, knowing that 
there is a church with a larger ministry is important. But also be 
humbled enough to know that in a time like this, when you're moving into 
a future you can't fully predict, nobody has all the answers, that's 
important, too.
    I don't want to embarrass him, but not very long ago, I was home in 
Arkansas, and my pastor, Rex Horne, who's here, gave a fascinating 
sermon in which he was talking about how Jesus treated different kinds 
of people. And he pointed out how humble Christ was in dealing with the 
leper, the hated Zaccheus, the woman caught in adultery. He reminded us 
of the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan in the Bible. 
And then he said, you know, the only people Jesus was really hard on and 
acted like He was arrogant to--[laughter]--were the Pharisees and the 
Sadducees and the religious hypocrites who appeared to have all the 
revealed truth, and the people he ran out of the temple because they got 
church and state mixed up, too. They tried to take over the temple. 
[Laughter] Right?
    Now, this is an important lesson, and it had a huge impact on me, on 
my level of humility. We all need a good dose of humility. This is--it 
is not given to any of us to fully understand the future, but we do know 
we're moving into a different time with no precedent. And Mr. Barber, he 
may not be right about everything, but he's got a fix on it, and it's 
worth thinking about. And I ask all of you to think about that and to 
think of your work--when you see the people in your churches and your 
synagogues, in your mosques, who have problems in their lives, ask 
yourselves, are these problems the kind of problems that would happen at 
any age in time, or are they aggravated by this different period of 
change through which we're going, and how can we move together to 
respond to it?
    So I say to you, I hope you will pray for all of us here in these 
next 90 days, without regard to our party or our religion, because we 
have a hard and difficult job to do. We have to act. We have to succeed, 
but we have to do it in the right way for America to move into the next 
century with the American dream alive and well and with the ability to 
keep the kind of character and strength that we celebrated this week not 
only in the achievement of Cal Ripken but in the achievement of the bus 
driver and all the people that were cheering because they shared 
something that we desperately need to elevate and preserve as long as 
this country exists.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:33 a.m. in the State Dining Room at the 
White House. In his remarks, he referred to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., 
director, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University.