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CLINTON SOUNDS OUT THEOLOGIANS

Richard M. Nixon had a close friendship with Billy Graham. Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school while living in the White House. And Bill Clinton, despite being the target of conservative preachers, delights in punctuating his speeches with scripture passages and broad religious references and in holding informal sessions with religious leaders.

The president has not shied from religious settings, whether that involves attending Rosh Hashana services last week in Edgartown, Mass., or addressing the National Baptist Convention USA on Friday in New Orleans.Over the past year, in fact, some of the most intriguing encounters between Clinton and the nation's religionists have gone on behind closed doors at the White House.

On at least eight occasions, the president has met with religious figures from widely different points on the theological spectrum at private breakfasts. His guests have engaged him in an informal give-and-take, trading scriptural quotations and discussing big issues, like the nation's cultural and ideological divisions, the plague of urban violence, even how Clinton could better deal with the religious right.

Those who have attended come away citing Clinton's knowledge of scripture and his appearance of openness to their ideas. Of course, none of this hurts a White House regularly lashed from such high-profile pulpits as the Rev. Jerry Falwell's.

The most recent of these breakfast meetings occurred last Thursday, the day after Clinton returned from his vacation. The gathering included about 60 people, mostly mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Jews.

The Rev. W. Frank Harrington, senior pastor of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church, an 11,000-member congregation in Atlanta, said: "We talked about how the church can be a resource in trying to focus on recapturing the sense of the common good in this country and this society. I had very positive feelings."

Another who attended, the Rev. C. Everett Goodwin, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Washington, said that Clinton had "talked about the need to stop demonizing the people we disagree with, and who demonize us."

The White House began the gatherings a year ago, the day after Clinton returned from his first vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Playing host to several dozen religious leaders, he praised the book "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion" (Basic Books, 1993) by Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor, and lamented secular attitudes that would push religion out of public life.

Since then, the White House has held at least half a dozen smaller meetings, usually with groups of a dozen or so - clergy from big churches and historic synagogues, theologians, academics, religious journalists and others. The political views of the president's guests' have ranged from liberal to moderately conservative.

For those who attend, it can be a heady experience, having the opportunity to engage the president in conversations about faith and values. Some have taken the occasion to offer him pastoral advice.

At a meeting last month, the Episcopal Church's top official, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, urged Clinton to return to the broad themes of national unity. "I tried to give him such encouragement that that was what the nation was looking for and needing," Browning said.