NEW YORK -- Bill Clinton called for a "New Covenant" in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, drawing on religious imagery that inspired some of the earliest English settlers who came to America seeking religious freedom.

In a speech replete with biblical themes, Clinton, a Southern Baptist, used biblical passages to underscore what he regards as critical elements in unifying the nation: a vision for the future and a commitment to making it real.

The Rev. Martin E. Marty, professor of church history at the University of Chicago, said Clinton was "playing with a very loaded historical symbol" in calling for a New Covenant. Marty noted that the idea of a covenant, a key biblical image, is "one of the strongest themes in early America."

Its strength, he said, is rooted in its offer of "a measure of security mixed with responsibility," but its weakness is that the symbol has become tainted in modern times.

"To the typical American, a covenant is something you sign with a Realtor to keep unwanted people out of the neighborhood," he said.

But Clinton reached for the high road in his call for a New Covenant. He said it would be "a solemn commitment between the people and their government," an effort based "not simply on what each of us can take, but on what all of us must give to make America work again."

The term took on a strong biblical cast when he used it to connote both protection and obedience.

The word is used protectively in Genesis, where the rainbow after the great flood becomes a sign of God's covenant that such devastation would never recur. Later, beginning in the book of Exodus, the terms of the covenant imply a promise of divine blessings in exchange for obedience to divine laws.

In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the symbol of a "new covenant" between God and humans, and the term historically has been used by Christians as a synonym for the New Testament itself.

Clinton is hardly the first American political leader to draw on religious imagery. The practice is so common that scholars have given it a name -- civil religion -- and it has been so corrupted at times that it evokes cynicism instead of the idealism it intends.

But Clinton's message of inclusivism, his call for Americans to shoulder responsibility for others, won plaudits from Richard V. Pierard, coauthor of the 1988 book, "Civil Religion and the Presidency." Pierard, professor of history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, said he "would like to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt here: that he is trying to use this imagery to pull the country together."

"I see this as possibly the best in American civil religion, almost a Lincolnesque quality, where you're calling the American people to a higher cause," he said.