From The Glass House To The White House

THEY BOTH ROSE FROM HUMBLE, small-town boyhoods to achieve extraordinary success. Both are tall and telegenic, quick to smile, quicker yet to tear. Both command influential pulpits--one in the White House, the other in a shimmering, $20 million cathedral made of unstained glass. And lordy, how the two can talk! In his search for spiritual inspiration, therefore, what could be more natural for President Clinton than to turn to the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the always upbeat preacher of self-esteem, author of 31 books and pastor of the Crys- tal Cathedral in Orange County, California? Where could the world's most powerful political leader find a shrewder soulmate than in a pastor who is seen each week by 20 million around the world through a television program called ""The Hour of Power''?

At the age of 70, Schuller is not a total stranger to the presidential spotlight. He has, he says, been a friend to every president since Richard Nixon. But unlike Billy Graham, Schuller has never enjoyed regular access to the Lincoln Bedroom. And unlike Pat Robertson, he has carefully avoided politics--and any other controversial subject--in his therapeutic sermons. Clinton, for his part, has consulted so many clergy while in office that he may be the most pastorized president in history. In particular, he has courted evangelical leaders as a buffer against his critics on the religious right. But until Schuller showed up at the State of the Union Message, sitting next to the First Lady, no one criticized Clinton's choice of religious counselors. Nor, until Schuller let it be known that he had been advising Clinton off and on, did the effervescent preacher have to defend himself on television against angry conservative Christians.

The Clinton connection began on Christmas Eve 1994. The Republicans had just won control of Congress, and the president was mired in the failure of his health-care reform and stories about Paula Jones--herself an occasional visitor to the Crystal Cathedral. On impulse, Schuller left a message with the White House switchboard and was astounded when Clinton called back an hour later. The president invited the preacher to visit, and two months later Schuller found himself praying with Clinton in the Lincoln Bedroom. It was a moment of mutuality between a president who regularly feels the pain of others and a pastor who prescribes religion for pain relief. ""I've seen his eyes so full of water they were almost brimming over,'' Schuller marvels. ""I think he seeks the emotional resources to practice leadership.''

After Clinton won re-election, Schuller wrote him a congratulatory note and offered his favorite Bible verse: ""You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in'' (Isaiah 58:12). It was the verse Schuller chose for his or- dination as a minister of the Reformed Church of America and one he has also urged on members of the Israeli cabinet and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. (Schuller says the verse moved Arafat to tears.) Clinton, who sometimes teases his predominantly Jewish speechwriting staff for their unfamiliarity with the New Testament, insisted that this verse from the Hebrew Bible be worked into his Inaugural Address. Clinton used it again in his State of the Union Message. Schuller also inspired the president's unexpected call for an end to Beltway ""cynicism'' at this year's White House Prayer Breakfast.

In one sense, Schuller regards the Oval Office like his own Crystal Cathedral: neither is a place where he wants to throw stones. The only political issue he has discussed with the president, he says, is the balanced budget. ""I won't talk to you about any other items in that budget but that $375 billion item,'' he said on one recent occasion, referring to the annual interest on the national debt. ""I hate to give those dollars to a rich institution when cities need that money so badly.''

Raising funds: Like the president, Schuller spends more time raising money among the rich and well connected than his job description as pastor would suggest. As he writes in his newest guide to success, ""If It's Going to Be, It's Up to Me,'' out next month, ""Many of my successful Christian friends are driven by need--the need to help others--more than greed.'' That's a line that might work equally well for political fund raisers.

Among Schuller's favorite stories is one that illustrates his belief that God is a kind of divine power line that, when tapped, makes dreams come true. After reading that a man named John Crean had donated $1 million to build a local YMCA, Schuller called on Crean--cold--and asked for another million for his Crystal Cathedral. When Crean balked, Schuller asked if he could say a prayer before he left. ""Dear God,'' he intoned, ""Was it Your idea or mine to ask John Crean to give a million dollars? If it was my idea, forgive me and help him to forgive me too. But if it was Your idea, can You figure out a way to let him do what he'd like to--but can't? Amen.'' The next day, Crean made his pledge. According to Schuller's 1983 best seller ""Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do!,'' it was ""possibly the single most ecstatic moment in my life.''

Schuller has had many such moments in building a ministry that takes in $50 million a year. His message of self-esteem and success is built on what he calls the principles of ""possibility thinking,'' a phrase suggested by Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale to distinguish Schuller's message from the ""positive thinking'' coined by her husband. Schuller points to himself as a good example of his proven principles: ""I have lived a really good life,'' he writes in his latest book: ""successful, significant, stimulating and satisfying.'' He points to Jesus as ""the greatest possibility thinker who ever lived'' and as ""Self-Esteem Incarnate.'' If this is an inversion of the Gospels, Schuller doesn't seem to notice.

Schuller's beliefs have evolved a long way from the self-effacing Calvinism of his rural Iowa parents. They're also a far piece from the Baptist Biblicalism of Clinton's Arkansas youth. In his spiritual autobiography Schuller notes that a preacher's best preaching is to his own weakness. Friends who have known Schuller a long time agree: they think he emphasizes self-esteem because he has so much need of it himself. And they wonder: could this be the pain that the preacher and the president have in common?