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

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.

"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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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."

But there are some on the right who take Clinton's faith at face value. Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, has met both Clinton and Obama, and concluded that religion is an important part of their lives.

"My impression is that Clinton and Obama both come out of a social gospel kind of background, which is a long-standing tradition in our country, and that it's authentic with both of them," he says.

A link to methodist founder

Clinton traces her Methodist roots back several generations, perhaps even to John Wesley himself, the founder of the Methodist Church in the 18th century. In her memoirs, "Living History," she writes that her father's parents claimed they became Methodists because their great-grandparents were converted by Wesley in the coal-mining villages around Newcastle in northern England and in South Wales.

Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, was not raised in any religion, but she adopted her husband's faith and taught Sunday school at First United Methodist Church in their hometown of Park Ridge, Ill. Clinton's father, Hugh Rodham, did not attend church, but he prayed by his bed every night, Clinton writes.

"Prayer became a source of solace and guidance for me even as a child," she writes.

She attended Bible school, Sunday school, and youth group, and helped prepare the altar for Sunday's services. In the sixth grade, she was confirmed in her church, and by her freshman year in high school in the fall of 1961, was ready for the "University of Life" – the youth fellowship program. All the while, she says, she sought to balance her conservative father's focus on self-reliance with her mother's interest in social justice.

Then along came the Rev. Don Jones, a charismatic youth minister fresh out of seminary and the Navy.

"He was filled with the teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr," Clinton writes. "Bonhoeffer stressed that the role of a Christian was a moral one of total engagement in the world with the promotion of human development. Niebuhr struck a persuasive balance between a clear-eyed realism about human nature and an unrelenting passion for justice and social reform." Clinton says she had never met anyone like him. He was struck by her as well.

"What I [saw] in her was clearly a very good searching and clear mind," Mr. Jones says in an interview. "She was already a little brain child, a budding intellectual, I would say. So her interest in my ministry and my version of the gospel and the Christian faith was to some extent intellectual. She would come up after one of our sessions and talk to me about a fine point about something I had said."

Jones used art and literature to show his students a world beyond their "Happy Days" life. He introduced them to the writings of e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot, to the paintings of Pablo Picasso – most memorably, his depiction of war in "Guernica" – and to important films of the day, such as Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows." Each served as a springboard for church-basement discussions on spirituality, grace, and redemption.

From faith to action

Clinton was also drawn to the Methodist tradition of putting faith into action, to what Jones calls her "practical search for the relevance of Christianity." At age 15, with help from her mother and from Jones, Clinton organized babysitting brigades for the children of migrant workers who labored in the fields not far from Park Ridge. Clinton and her friends brought Kool-Aid, games, and materials for arts and crafts projects.

Jones also took the students to meet with youth groups from black and Hispanic churches in the city. Once, he brought them into Chicago to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Orchestra Hall, and arranged for the students to meet the civil rights leader afterward.

"Until then, I had been dimly aware of the social revolution occurring in our country, but Dr. King's words illuminated the struggle taking place and challenged our indifference," writes Clinton.

Though Clinton remained a Republican into her college days at Wellesley, what she calls the "liberalizing" experiences that Jones provided during his two years in Park Ridge clearly made a deep impression and catalyzed her transformation into a Democrat and an activist.

To this day, Jones – now a retired professor of social ethics at Drew University in Madison, N.J. – and some of the students from the youth group remain cherished friends. One of those fellow students, Ernie Ricketts, whom she has known since kindergarten, calls Clinton "a very good friend, a very loyal friend."

"She called me on my 60th birthday – two days after she declared she was going to run for president," says Mr. Ricketts. "That's pretty thoughtful."

Lewinsky scandal

In Clinton's memoirs, it is Jones whom she singles out by name for his help in getting her through the crisis in her marriage when her husband, former President Bill Clinton, admitted to her in August 1998 that he had been unfaithful to her with intern Monica Lewinsky. "This was the most devastating, shocking, and hurtful experience of my life," she writes.

Clinton had not asked for Jones's counsel. Rather, he took it upon himself to send a letter to her with a sermon on sin and grace by theologian Paul Tillich called "You Are Accepted," which he had read all those years ago to the youth group in Park Ridge.

"[The sermon's] premise is how sin and grace exist through life in constant interplay; neither is possible without the other. The mystery of grace is that you cannot look for it," Clinton writes.

Then she quotes from the Tillich sermon: "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It happens; or it does not happen."

Five days after he sent the letter, Jones says he received a handwritten reply from Bill Clinton saying, "Thank you, Don, for sending Hillary that wonderful sermon by Paul Tillich," and then, "Thank you for being her friend."

"That's exactly what I intended to have happen," Jones says, "because I sent it really for Bill, more than for Hillary."

But Jones's missive clearly had cut to Hillary Clinton's core as well.

"Grace happens," she wrote in her memoirs, following on the Tillich quote. "Until it did, my main job was to put one foot in front of the other and get through another day."

Confronting skeptics

Skepticism over the sincerity of Hillary Clinton's faith began long before she stepped onto the national stage. As first lady of Arkansas, she sought to put the questions to rest by touring the state with a speech called "Why I Am a Methodist." But the skepticism has persisted, just as some on the left have suggested that she's gone to the dark side in her blending of faith and politics.

The read-in to a recent article on Clinton in Mother Jones magazine warns ominously: "For 15 years, Hillary Clinton has been part of a secretive religious group that seeks to bring Jesus back to Capitol Hill. Is she triangulating – or living her faith?"

The article details her membership in Washington prayer groups, first during her years as first lady, in a bipartisan women's group that included the wives of Washington power brokers and then, after her election to the Senate in 2000, her participation in the weekly Senate prayer group.

To most outsiders, these groups would seem harmless, and at times beneficial to their members. For Clinton, the women's prayer group became an invaluable support network, especially during the Lewinsky scandal. Holly Leachman, the head of the women's group whom Clinton calls "a spiritual spark plug," faxed her a daily Scripture reading or faith message through Clinton's years as first lady. The women in the group also presented Clinton with a handmade book filled with messages, quotes, and Scripture – one of Clinton's favorite gifts of all the thousands she received as first lady, she says, and one she used often.

In the Senate, Clinton's involvement in the weekly prayer group has allowed her to form across-the-aisle bonds that have insulated her at times from Washington's ultra-partisan atmosphere.

But to those who believe that the intersection of faith and politics has already gone far over the line – especially with the religious left now engaging on turf that used to be dominated by the religious right – Clinton's own words can be a source of alarm. At the Sojourners faith forum last June, she referred to how she and the other two Democratic presidential candidates invited to speak – Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina – are trying "to inject faith into policy." In an address to the United Methodist General Conference in 1996, Clinton laid out how her faith informs her politics.

"For me, the Social Principles of the Methodist Church have been as much a description of our history as a prod to my future actions," she said. "We can find direction, if we look to the church's call to strengthen families and renew our schools and encourage policies that enable each child to have a chance to fulfill his or her God-given potential."

Death penalty stand

The only area where Clinton runs afoul of Methodist doctrine is over the death penalty, which the church opposes. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Clinton is a longtime advocate of the death penalty. She cosponsored legislation in 2003 to establish a process for DNA testing for people sentenced to the death penalty under federal law. As first lady, she lobbied for her husband's crime bill, which added to the list of offenses eligible for the federal death penalty. Clinton was unavailable for questions on this and other faith-related matters.

It is no doubt a sign of the times that the top Democratic presidential candidates, especially Clinton and Obama, have a significant faith component to their campaign. Those on the secular left who would rather skip the God talk are left with the longer-shot candidates. But by following her approach to faith and politics, Clinton probably stands to gain more in the center than she would lose on the left, analysts say.

"There's a particular way in which Americans want their presidents as head of state to kind of show some religious leg," says Mark Silk, head of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The challenge for Clinton, when she does engage in faith talk, is to do so in a way that appeals to voters. Mr. Silk suggests that her "Sunday School teacher" tone may not be as effective as her husband's or Obama's more preacherly style.

If Clinton's enthusiastic reception at Saddleback Church on Nov. 29 is any indication, she may be getting the knack of reaching out, through her faith, to audiences that normally would not have given her the time of day. But that, too, may be a sign of how the religious right is changing, as new leaders like Mr. Warren open up their pulpits to politicians with whom they can agree to disagree on some issues, while exploring common ground on others.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...