Bill Clinton photo

Remarks to the United Michigan Clergy in Detroit

October 21, 1996

The President. Thank you very much. Well, the bishop has prayed over us so well, and my longtime friend Reverend Jones, who shares my roots in Arkansas, has spoken with such passion, and you've made Senator Levin more energetic than I ever heard him before. He's on fire. [Laughter] And Mayor Archer is on his way to becoming the world's greatest mayor. He did so well, I think I should quit while I'm ahead. He was wonderful.

I want to thank all the religious leaders behind me and all those in front of me. I thank Senator Levin for being here, along with the other Members of Congress who are here: Congressman Conyers, Congressman Dingell, Congressman Levin. I'm not sure if Congressman Bonior is here or not, but if he's not, you pretend like he's here. He's been working for you in Washington overtime. Our nominee for Congress, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, thank you for being here, Carolyn. Thank you, my good friend Governor Blanchard, for being here.

I want to thank the people who performed before I came out, Witness and the Craig Brothers. And I want to thank the people who did that remarkable and unique job of our national anthem, Mr. Benjamin Pruitt and Sister Nancy Bradley. Thank you. If she had gone up one more "America," I was going to volunteer to withdraw from the campaign and become her agent. [Laughter] It was so amazing.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a wonderful array of people of faith here. We have Christians who are Catholic and Protestant; we have American Jews here; we have American Muslims here. And there is one person I think I know would be here if his health permitted him to be, Father William Cunningham, who does a brilliant job. You all know him. And I've been to a lot of places in my career in public service all across America where people are keeping hope alive and giving people a chance to make the most of their God-given abilities. But the work that Father Cunningham has done is truly unique. And he's had a pretty tough time lately, and he's doing a little better. But I'd like to ask if we could each in our own way just take a few seconds in a moment of silent prayer for Father William Cunningham and his health and God's will.

[At this point, a moment of silence was observed.]

The President. Amen.

Audience members. Amen.

The President. Let me say to all of you how glad I am to be here. I thank the mayor for mentioning the opportunity I had. I thought it was an opportunity to give the Nation's highest civilian award, the Congressional Medal of Freedom, to Rosa Parks. She symbolized the empowerment that will come to every American on election day.

And the mayor went through the issues, and I think you know what the differences are in the choices we face. So what I want to say to all of you is that we're going into a big, different, brilliant new world. I was just with the mayor and Wayne County executive Ed McNamara out at the airport. We were breaking ground on this new $1.6 billion project that will bring you 20,000 jobs and companies from all over the world coming here to the Detroit area to invest, putting people to work. And I was thinking about that on the one hand and then, on the other, what has been done here by the businesses in this area when Detroit won in a competition, fair and square, the right to become one of our first six urban empowerment zones and then put together $2 billion worth of private commitments to invest in the city and then in a matter of a couple of years cut the unemployment rate by more than 50 percent in this city—in just a matter of a couple of years.

Those are the two great things I want you to focus on. One is we're going into a big new world full of new possibilities, dominated by technology, information, and the raw speed of transfer of information, ideas, money, technology, and people around the world and across national borders. The second is that if we want to make the most of those developments, we've got to do a better job of developing ourselves from the grassroots up. That's what the Detroit empowerment zone represents, making the most of the human potential. The greatest untapped economic market for America is still the Americans that aren't working up to the fullest of their capacities, learning up to the fullest of their capacities, or living up to the fullest of their capacities. And the great choice before us is whether we believe that we have an obligation to work together to make the most of this new world and to meet the challenges that remain or whether we would be better off sort of on our own or with our own little crowd.

I do believe it takes a village to raise a child, build a city, build a State, and build a nation. And I do believe that we have to build a bridge to the future that's big and strong enough for all of us to walk across and that all of us will do better if everybody has a chance to get on that bridge and go right on across into that new century. That's what I believe.

When I became President, I told you when I came here that I would give you an administration that looked like America but that I would do my best not to give any person a job for which they were not qualified. I said I'd try to do both things. And it was amazing to me that when I got to Washington some of the people wrote about this as if this was some strange and radical idea, some crazy notion.

But all I know is, after 4 years, we've given more women and people of color a chance to serve in the Cabinet, on the Federal bench, in high positions in the White House and other places than any previous administration—[Applause]—than any previous administration by far. And yet my nominees to the Federal court have received the highest ratings from the American Bar Association of any President since the ratings system began. You can have excellence and diversity; you can have high standards and give everybody a chance to live up to those high standards.

I said that I would try to find ways for everybody to participate in the bounty of America. That's what the empowerment zones were all about. That's why we're setting up community development banks all across the country to make loans to people who normally can't get loans. I've discovered—nearly a decade ago now—a man by the name of Mohammed Yunis who was educated in the United States and went home to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, who's made loans through neighborhood banks to over a million poor village women to help them start enterprises in one of the poorest countries in the world. And he's got a higher repayment rate than the commercial banks do in the country. I figured if it was good enough for Bangladesh, it ought to be good enough for Detroit and Little Rock and every other place in the country where people ought to be given a chance to work. And they're working out there. They're working to give people a chance to tap into the free enterprise system.

We just put, for the first time, $5 million of our campaign funds which we have to save and invest in minority banks, four leading minority owned banks, two African-American and two Hispanic. Nobody had ever done that before. I'll bet you—I shouldn't be gambling with people of the cloth. [Laughter] Let me rephrase that. [Laughter] If I were a betting man— [laughter]—I would bet that that money will be cared for just as well and will earn just as much interest for our campaign as if we put it somewhere else. Meanwhile, it can be invested in communities where people really need the money to create jobs and go to work.

So—and let me just mention one or two other things. When I was confronted with the question of what to do about affirmative action, I said it may not please some of my friends, but I don't think all those programs have worked the way they're supposed to. And we're going to have to tighten the standards on some; we even got rid of one or two. But the idea that there's no more discrimination in this country and that there's no more burden that people bear, it seems to me there's no evidence to support that. And I favor not quotas, not preferences for anybody that's unqualified, but I do favor making an extra effort to give everybody a chance to prove whether they're qualified. And that's what this is about. And I might say that there is an enormous amount of opinion of people who run big business operations, many of them in the other party, who have had the same experiences I have, who have the same position I do about this. We need to be bringing the people together, not dividing.

One of the things I—because we have people of different faiths in this room, I want to say something else that I really have cared a great deal about. One of the great honors of my Presidency that many people didn't hear about because there wasn't enough controversy associated with it—[laughter]—was to sign a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And let me tell you what this bill did. This bill basically says that the Federal Government cannot interfere with, undermine, or weaken the practice of anybody's religion in the United States unless there is some overwhelming reason for it and the public interest cannot be protected in any other way whatsoever. In other words, the first amendment means what it says: We will not interfere with the practice of the freedom of religion. This has changed a lot of things in America.

For example, in a white evangelical church, a man had made his tithe payment after he'd gone bankrupt, and the Government was going to get the money back. And we said, no, no, no, we signed a law. We're not taking that money back from that church; they've got it. For example, we have respected the religious practices that are the oldest in our country, the practice of the Native Americans, our Indian people, more than ever before. We have tried to bend over backwards to respect the religious practices of Muslims wherever they live in America, even if the people involved are converts who happen to be in our penal institutions. Everywhere we have tried to work to say, the most important amendment in the Constitution is the first one: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

So all these things—I think it made a difference to America. And that brings me to the point I want to make most strongly. The mayor has gone over most of our record and there's lots of other stuff that's good, but he did as good a job as I could. I'll just leave that alone. [Laughter]

There's a big idea here. Do you believe that we're better off if we go forward together with mutual respect for each other, with all of our diversity? Or are we better off having a fight every time we disagree with somebody over something instead of saying, "If you share the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, if you're willing to respect me even though I'm different from you, and if you're willing to show up for work tomorrow and be a law-abiding citizen, that's all I need to know about you. You're part of my America. We're going forward together into the 21st century." That's what I think our position ought to be.

Lest you get carried away here, this is not a simple thing. This seems self-evident to you. This is a big deal. Look at the world. Look at how the world is convulsed by the—how children, innocent children still being killed on the brink of the 21st century because of tribal, ethnic, racial, and religious differences around the world. Consider the Holy Land, the home of the three great religions of the world who all believe we are all created in the image of one God, our Creator, our Judge. How shall He judge us for keeping on killing each other into the 21st century because we're different from somebody else?

Some people said they thought I had overreacted when these churches were being burned, when synagogues were being defaced with swastikas, when there was an Islamic center destroyed in South Carolina. Congressman Conyers went with me down to South Carolina to see one of these churches that had been burned and then rebuilt. And I said, no, I don't think so, not just because churches have been burned in my region in my lifetime and we did this before and it didn't work out very well, but because all over the world you see the logical conclusion of human affairs if we define ourselves primarily in terms of what we are not instead of what we are. If we start looking at other people and say, "Thank God I'm not them," then it's not very long before you say, "Well, maybe God wants me to do away with them." Is that right? [Applause] That's right. You think about it.

So in America we—there's a connection, a direct connection between this fundamental religious concept we're talking about here, whether we're all the creation of God and all equal in the eyes of God, and the much more secular event I just came from, dedicating that new airport. Why? Because this is the only great democracy that's got somebody from everywhere. This county has nearly got somebody from everywhere in it. When Hillary and Chelsea and I went to open the Olympics and there were people from 192 different groups there, national and ethnic groups around the country— our biggest county, Los Angeles County, has people from over 150 of those groups in one county. And I'll bet you're over 100 here in Wayne County.

So if you want to take the benefits of the modern world, you have to embrace the values in their purest form of honoring other people as equals in the eyes of God, if they behave, treat you with respect, even if they do things you think are dead wrong, if they don't break the law and they treat you with respect and they're part of our country.

This is very important. And that's why I have spent so much time on religious freedom, why I've spent so much time on this church burning, why after the Oklahoma City incident I tried— first of all, you remember, there were all these people who said, oh, this must be some terrorist attack from the Middle East. I said, don't jump on those people; there's no evidence of that yet. And it turned out to be a problem here at home.

And so I ask you all to think about that. Yes, there are these issues. Yes, I believe I'm right about family leave and our opponents are wrong—the leaders of the Congress and my opponent in the race. Yes, I think I'm right about college loans and our opponents are wrong. I believe all that. Yes, I think we were right on the empowerment zones and they were wrong to oppose us. Yes, I think we were right on trying to prove you can grow the economy and still clean up all these toxic waste sites in our cities and give our kids safety, and they were wrong to oppose it. I believe all that.

But you have to understand that underneath every one of those specific things there is this— these big ideas. Are we going to treat each other with respect and bring our country together and build one community and say, "Thank you, God, for giving the United States all this diversity on the brink of the 21st century, and if we do what is morally right with this great challenge You've given us"—it's challenging for all of us to get along. It's challenging for all of you in one family to get along, and challenging to get everybody in this church to get along. It's a challenge. So you say, "Thank you, God, for giving us this burden." If we can meet this challenge, there is no country better positioned for the 21st century than the United States, because it's going to be a global society and we've got somebody from everybody here already—from everywhere.

So I say to you, when I talk about opening the doors of college education to all or hooking up every classroom in America to the information superhighway so that children will be talking to each other in the poorest school districts and the richest and the most middle class in America—they'll be talking to kids halfway around the world in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, in Europe, by E-mail before you know it. We'll have—for the first time in American history all of our children will have access to the same information in the same time in the same way. All those things—every one of these issues you have to think about—this is a way to let people live up to the fullest of their God-given potential and to live by our values.

And we have to live by our values and treat each other with respect; otherwise, we can't take advantage of all this. The two things go together. We can't build that bridge to the future unless we're going to let everybody walk over it. It won't be strong enough.

And there's so many things where you will be called upon to meet those challenges; I just want to mention two. One is we have to do more to help families succeed at work and at home. That's what the Family and Medical Leave Act was about. All of you will know this, but let me just put it out there anyway. The average American parent is spending more time at work and less time at home today than in 1969. People are working harder. That's why I wanted the Family and Medical Leave Act. That's why I want to expand it so people can go see their children's teacher or take their kids or their own parents to the doctor without losing their jobs—just a little expansion. I want to do that.

But it's also why we passed a law to say new television sets have to have this V-chip in it so a parent can determine what the children are watching when they're too young to make their own judgment, so they shouldn't be exposed to things they shouldn't see.

And it's why we've tried to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco being advertised to them. You know, 3,000 kids a day start smoking in this country even though it's illegal, and 1,000 will die sooner because of it. And it's illegal to do. So, yes, I plead guilty; we're trying to stop those companies from advertising, marketing, and distributing tobacco in a way that inevitably goes to kids. I think that's good. We need to finish that work.

It's why we have supported the safe and drugfree schools program, so there will be somebody for our 10-year-olds in a uniform standing in front of every class in the country, and people can look up to him and say, well, if they're not getting it at home, at least they ought to get it in school, somebody telling these children these drugs are wrong, they can kill you. They're not just illegal; they're wrong and they can kill you.

And let me just say in that regard, I want to ask you for your support about a specific thing I recommended on Saturday. We have a particularly troubling time because there's still too many of our children out there raising themselves. A lot of you know that better than I do. And I am proud, as the mayor said, that we've increased child support collections by nearly 50 percent. We're going to increase it a lot more in the next 4 years. But getting the check is not the same thing as having mama and daddy at home talking about right and wrong. It's not the same thing. It's important, but it's not the same thing.

Now, consider this: The crime rate has gone down in America for 4 years in a row. The violent crime rate has gone down for 4 years in a row, but the juvenile murder rate didn't start going down until last year. And the juvenile rate of violence didn't start going down until this year. Isn't that awful? Who would have ever believed that our kids under 18 could be in worse shape when it comes to violating the law than a lot of people older.

The drug rates in this country—the rates of casual drug use, marijuana use, and cocaine use have all gone down substantially in the last 4 years. But the rate of drug use in our country among juveniles has gone up substantially. I want to say—let me—let's get this clear: About 90 percent of our kids are still drug-free, and they're not experimenting, they're not doing anything wrong. But still, 10 or 11 percent of the people fooling around with drugs is terrifying. It's terrifying. And last weekend, I said one of the things I think we ought to do is to say to our young people, if you want to get a driver's license, we want you to pass a drug test. And if you don't pass it, you can't have a driver's license. I think that's important.

Now, I want to ask you—[applause]—I want to ask you to support that because some of our young people say, "Well, what's that old, cranky President doing that to me for? I'd never think of doing that." I want you to ask the 90 percent of our kids who hadn't done anything wrong to take this on as a personal responsibility. They are—we are inconveniencing them to help us identify those kids that are in trouble before it is too late.

And I hope you will support me from the pulpit on this because this is important. We cannot afford to have a country where all the young adults—where people normally take a lot of the risks in life—are getting smarter about drugs, and the juveniles, the kids under 18, are still getting dumber about drugs. We have to do something about it. So that's one idea we have I hope you'll support.

The other specific thing I want to ask you for is this: I am proud of the fact that because of the strength of our economy, that we all did together, and because of special work I've done with States and communities around the country, the welfare rolls have almost 2 million fewer people on them than the day I became President—people moving from welfare to work. I'm proud of that.

Now, there has been a lot of controversy about this welfare reform law I signed, but I want to just ask you to think with me for about 2 minutes about that. Let me tell you what the law says. The law says the National Government will continue to guarantee to poor families and little children medical care and food and if the parent, the mother goes to work, more child care than ever. The money that used to be in the welfare check itself, which is part Federal and part State—it used to go out every month in the check—that money will now go to the States, and the States and the communities will have 2 years to figure out how to turn the welfare check into a paycheck for ablebodied people. That is a good and honorable thing to do. But we can only do it if there is a job there to earn a paycheck from.

So to me this is not a matter of rhetoric. I want to take poverty out of politics. I want poor people to be treated like other people. And to do that, we've got to take it out of politics. And to do that, we have to develop community- and neighborhood-based programs to treat people like individuals and families like individual families with dignity.

Now, let me give you an example of what can be done. And I want every one of you to think about whether your church, your synagogue, your mosque, your Islamic center could participate in this. Under the law now, it is now legal for every State in the country to say to any employer, including a religious institution, if you will add one person to your work force and you will pay them something above the minimum wage and guarantee them a job for a while, you can have their welfare check as a wage supplement.

In addition to that, I'm going to offer to the Congress a special targeted tax cut for people to hire people off welfare. Now, consider this. A welfare check on average in most States for a family of three is worth about—I don't know—three bucks an hour. If somebody gets hired at $7.50 an hour, $8 an hour, or whatever, the employer gets the check as a subsidy to take people and train them and care about their children and end the physical isolation that happens to people who get trapped without opportunity.

But don't kid yourself; this law will be a flop if the rest of us don't do our responsibility. All the people that criticized me for signing this bill, if we do a lousy job they'll be right, because poor people will be worse off after the bill than before. The problem is before, we tried it that way and half the people were always stuck. So there was a limit to how much good we could do before, and the real value of these monthly checks is much lower than it was 20 years ago.

Now we've got a chance to take the politics out of poverty, to make it into a people problem and a challenge, and the new system will literally permit every business person in the country, every nonprofit employer in the country, every religious institution in the country to get one family and say, "You're mine." And then if the State has got any sense at all, they would do this, every State, to give the communities the power to say, here's the check. It's a supplement. We're going to pay you to prove that this person and her children can be just like everybody else in life if they get the right kind of help. And I ask you, I want you to help me do that. Will you think about helping me do that? Will you prove that we can give poor people another chance? Will you help us do that? [Applause]

The last thing I want to say is this. If you don't show up November 5th, all this is a highly academic conversation. I have worked as hard as I could to show the American people—whenever I go to a big rally—I don't know if you've ever seen them on television—I am always introduced by a citizen who has done something related to something I'm working on in Washington, because I want people like the folks that show up with you every week to see the connection between what we do in Washington—Senator Levin and I and these Members of Congress—and what you do here. That's what I want. And I'm just saying, anything you can do to increase that voter turnout, you ought to do. We talk a lot about politicians' responsibility; voting is the citizens' responsibility. That's the price you pay for democracy.

And I will end with this story. I was in Cleveland before I came here today—a great American city. And I drove by a church—just by total accident, it wasn't planned—I drove by a church that 4 years ago, about this time, I was in. And the pastor, a great American pastor—a lot of you know him—his name is Otis Moss, a great American preacher. And Otis Moss was talking to the flock that night, and he said, "A lot of you don't think you ought to vote." He said, "Let me tell you a story." He said, "I grew up in the South when we weren't allowed to vote. And finally, after people going to jail, and people going to court, and Congress passing laws, my daddy got the right to vote. And he walked 10 miles to the polling place. And those people looked at him, and they'd say, ‘I'm sorry, Mr. Moss, you're at the wrong polling place. You got to go someplace else.' And he said he had to walk 4 or 5 miles to the next polling place. And he said when he got there, they said, ‘I'm sorry, Mr. Moss, the polls are closed.' He said he'd been waiting all his life to vote." He said, "The first time my daughter was old enough to vote, I took her to the polling place and we both got into the place at the same time and we closed the machines." And he said, "Before I could vote, I put my ear up next to my voting booth and I listened to my daughter vote, and I thought about my daddy walking all those miles all those years." He said, "Nobody in my family has ever missed a vote."

And so I ask you to think about that bright new day that's out there before us and the many, many miles people walked without the right to have a say about that new day, and do everything you can with everybody you know to make sure that on November 5th we build that bridge to the 21st century.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 7:42 p.m. at the Cobo Center. In his remarks, he referred to John Sheard, jurisdictional bishop, Church of God in Christ; Rev. Odell Jones, pastor, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church; Father William Cunningham, director, Project Hope; and civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the United Michigan Clergy in Detroit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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