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Candidate Clinton goes public with her private faith

She doesn't cede religious turf to conservatives but dismays some liberals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2007


She quoted one of her favorite passages in Scripture – where it says in the Epistle of James that "faith without works is dead." She spoke of "the sustaining power of prayer," and how her own faith journey is approaching the half-century mark. She applauded the work of churches in ministering to the sick, as Jesus did.

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"For many of us the golden rule calls on us to act," she said.

And when Hillary Rodham Clinton had finished her address to the annual Global Summit on AIDS, the full house of 1,700 people at Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., rose in a standing ovation.

In the course of the New York senator's 11-month-old presidential campaign, her appearance last month at the Rev. Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren's megachurch represented a rare, bold foray into the predominantly conservative world of evangelical Christianity. Whether the warm reception translates into votes remains to be seen, but at the very least, Ms. Clinton signaled that she's not writing anybody off. Nor is she ceding any religious turf to her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who addressed the AIDS summit at Saddleback last year.

While the former first lady has said that speaking publicly about her Methodist faith does not come naturally to her, the language of religion has in fact become a key element of her campaign. Typically, she has chosen like-minded audiences – from First Baptist Church in Selma, Ala., for a major civil rights commemoration last March, to a faith forum organized by the progressive group Sojourners last June, to countless other church appearances and meetings (and sometimes prayers) with religious leaders.

In South Carolina, which holds the crucial first Southern primary, her faith and values outreach program – called "For Such a Time as This," after a verse from the Book of Esther – is virtually synonymous with her overall campaign there. And in a state where half the Democratic primary electorate is African-American, reaching out to the black churches is a given. Late last month, she scored a coup in her competition with Senator Obama for black and religious voters, when 60 African-American ministers appeared on stage with her in Spartanburg, S.C., with another 20 in the audience.

"The senator's faith is something that's very personal and dear to her, but it's reflected in all things she does and all aspects of life, so it's a natural part of the campaign," says Zac Wright, spokesman for Clinton's South Carolina campaign.

It's also a highly organized part of the campaign. Right after the 2004 elections, Clinton telegraphed her robust effort to reach values voters as a presidential candidate. Speaking at Tufts University outside Boston, she called it "a mistake for the Democrats not to engage evangelical Christians on their own turf – essentially ceding the vote to President Bush." A year ago, Clinton hired Burns Strider, an evangelical Christian from Mississippi who ran faith outreach for the House Democratic Caucus, to organize her faith outreach.

In the broader national campaign, God talk does not infuse her every political activity. On issues, she may weigh in on what she sees as a "moral crisis" – as she has referred to the millions of children lacking health insurance – but rarely does she overtly invoke her Methodist faith or the Bible in pushing a political point. An exception is her discussion of immigration reform, in which she has declared that tough anti-illegal-immigrant legislation would "criminalize the good Samaritan ... and even Jesus himself."

To some Christian conservatives, Clinton's religious talk is yet another reason to look askance at her. After The New York Times published an interview with Clinton last July about her faith, conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote: "This is a politician speaking, not a person who believes in the central tenets of Christianity."