Two Republican House members yesterday called on President Clinton to demand his press secretary's immediate resignation for what they called his "hateful remarks" about Southern Baptists, the president's denomination and the country's second-largest.
"We were appalled to read the recent comments of your spokesman, Joe Lockhart, denigrating the Baptist faith by saying that Southern Baptists 'perpetuate ancient religious hatred,' " Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), both Baptists, wrote to Clinton. "What makes it even more disturbing is that in making these hateful remarks, Lockhart was supposedly expressing your views."
The letter refers to Lockhart's response, in a Dec. 16 briefing, to a reporter's question about the statements Southern Baptists issued "against Hindus first, then Jews, and now this week they did against Muslims during the special holidays."
The reporter was presumably referring to the Southern Baptists' recent distribution of prayer guides targeting these three religious groups for conversion during their own holy days, although the reporter wasn't specific.
Lockhart responded by talking about the president's "views on religious tolerance" and on "dealing with ethnic and religious hatred and coming to grips with the long-held resentments between religions." He concluded by saying, "So I think he's been very clear in his opposition to whatever organization, including the Southern Baptists, that perpetuate ancient religious hatred."
Lockhart said he regrets the statement and that he had no idea what, specifically, the reporter's question referred to. He said his rambling answer wound up with some unfortunate juxtaposition of words.
"I can absolutely see why they're upset," Lockhart said. "It was just poorly phrased. I had no specific information about what this reporter was talking about, so I had no reason to allege that the group perpetuates ancient religious hatred. It was definitely not my intention to single out the Southern Baptists, or any group."
Hayworth does not accept the explanation or apology. "I believe the president's spokesman is charged with knowing the mind of the president and speaking on his behalf," he said. "He should still tender his resignation. And if the president allows this to stand, he is endorsing the statement."
The flap began Monday, when the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a long-time Clinton critic, seized on the remark. "Apparently, because the president has very few convictions, he harbors deep resentment against those who do," Paige Patterson told the Baptist Press. "I would say that the president, or his press secretary, or both have once again demonstrated that the one thing for which they have no regard is the truth."