SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. - Baring his soul before thousands of evangelical ministers, President Clinton said Thursday he feels ''this overwhelming sense of gratitude'' to have gained a measure of forgiveness from Americans for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton sat before an audience of about 4,500 with the Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and a Clinton adviser since 1992, for his most revealing discussion ever about his spiritual struggles since his affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, nearly brought down his presidency.
Turning a conference of evangelicals into a public confessional, he called the affair ''a terrible mistake.''
His utterances could have a political impact, too: Vice President Al Gore, a week away from his nomination as the Democratic standard-bearer to succeed Clinton, has suffered in the polls from being tied to a president whose job approval is high but whose ethics have drawn widespread scorn.
''I feel much more at peace than I used to,'' Clinton told the clergymen, among 11,000 attending a ministers' leadership conference. ''I don't think anybody can say, 'Hey, the state of my spiritual life is great.' I don't think that's true. It's always a work in progress.
''It may be that if I didn't get knocked down ... I might not have had to really deal with it 100 percent,'' Clinton said, in apparent reference to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.
''In a funny way, when you feel there is nothing left to hide, it sort of frees you up to do what you ought to be doing anyway. I feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude. I also learned a lot about forgiveness.''
He said more than 60 percent of Americans have ''stuck with me.''
As for people who say he never really apologized for what he did, Clinton said those who saw his nationally televised confession - and watched him cope with the impeachment crisis - could not possibly doubt his sincerity.
''There was a time when I was upset about it. But then I realized that was another form of defensiveness,'' Clinton said. ''... It's just a crutch for not dealing with what you're supposed to be dealing with. So I just let it go. I hope people can see it's different.''
The president revealed that he became a Christian in 1955 as a 9-year-old and, at age 11 or 12, was impressed with the Rev. Billy Graham's stand against holding one of his famous crusades before a segregated audience in Little Rock, Ark.
''Billy Graham ... had a profound impact on me, got me to thinking at an early age about (the connection) between your faith and your work,'' Clinton said. He said he even sent Graham a share of his allowance.
Shortly after admitting to the affair with Lewinsky in August 1998, Clinton received counseling from a trio of ministers, who agreed not to reveal what they discussed with him. Clinton himself has said little about it as he has sought to repair his marriage to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and his relationship with his daughter Chelsea. He said his relations with his family remain an ongoing struggle, then declined to go farther.
Clinton said the Lewinsky episode was a low moment of his presidency, along with the deaths of U.S. troops in Somalia, the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1994 backlash against Democrats who supported him in Congress.
For those who call his family's church attendance an act intended for public consumption, Clinton said: ''Well, at least it's a consistent act,'' and added, ''I think I have given evidence that I need to be in church.''
''I don't do it for anybody else, I do it for me,'' Clinton said. ''It means something. Not only validating my faith, but deepening it.''
Clinton was warmly received. At the end, he got a standing ovation from the ministers. Hybels offered a prayer for the Clinton family and said: ''Thank you for this man.''
Clinton traveled here after a stop in Chicago, where he announced a plan to give lower interest rates to college students who make their first 12 loan payments promptly, a move that would save them and their parents roughly $600 million over the next five years.
On Friday, Clinton sets off on a fund-raising swing in California which will wind up at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, which he will address.