During a town hall campaign event in Iowa this past January, a woman stood and asked Hillary Clinton an unusually blunt question about faith. The woman, a high school guidance counselor, said she identifies as both a Democrat and a Catholic Christian, but expressed frustration about having to defend her support for Clinton to conservative friends who insist that progressivism and Christianity are incompatible. How, she asked, does Clinton — a self-identified Methodist Christian who also happens to be one of America’s most famous Democrats — grapple with the same question, and how does her faith in things such as the Ten Commandments square with her left-leaning politics?
It’s a deeply personal question that many politicians would dodge, or at least explain away with a platitude about the value of faith and family. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the famously on-message Clinton, whose demeanor and accent critics often dismiss as duplicitous and disingenuous, launched into a lengthy, nuanced, and uncharacteristically unscripted articulation of her faith.
“Thank you for asking that. I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist,” Clinton responded. “My study of the Bible … has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do. And there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up … I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith.”
“I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith,” she added. “I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on.”
This thoughtful, conciliatory approach to religion rarely make headlines these days, but it should sound familiar to millions of America’s so-called “Mainline Christians” — devotees of older, overwhelmingly white, and often liberal-leaning Christian denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), or Clinton’s own United Methodist Church (UMC).
Rooted in a firm theological embrace of “social justice,” this strain of religious thought contrasts sharply with Clinton’s Republican opponent. With preacher’s son Ted Cruz and the often pastoral John Kasich dropping out of the race for the White House this week, the GOP flock has winnowed to Donald Trump, a man whose grasp of the spiritual is dubious at best. Unlike virtually every other Republican nominee from the past three decades, The Donald is infamous for his bumbling inability to speak coherently about the Bible, much less his own theological beliefs, earning him scorn from an uncommonly ecumenical consistory of critics: right-wing evangelical leaders, heads of Trump’s own Presbyterian denomination, and even Pope Francis have all condemned the businessman’s uneven approach to matters divine.
Not so with Clinton, whose longstanding dedication to Methodism is well documented, and whose support among certain faith constituencies is years in the making. In fact, set alongside Bernie Sanders’ devotion to secular Judaism, Clinton currently occupies an unusual position in American politics: she, a Democrat, is now the most overtly religious candidate running for president in 2016.
The importance of Clinton’s faith is often lost among America’s increasingly bifurcated media echo chamber, where right-wing outlets insist liberals cannot possibly be Christian and left-wing writers unleash (un)righteous indignation at debate moderators simply for asking Democratic candidates about their prayer life. But as Clinton inches ever closer to becoming the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, it’s worth reflecting on how deeply her theological beliefs impact her worldview — and her politics.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley
Pushed leftward by a spiritual mentor
Hillary Clinton, born Hillary Rodham, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois the eldest child of middle-class parents Hugh and Dorothy Rodham. Like many families, politics was a touchy subject: Hugh, a conservative small business owner and outspoken Barry Goldwater supporter, was a Republican, while Dorothy was a “closeted Democrat.” But while the two differed quietly on politics, they found common ground in a shared devotion to Methodism, a tradition rooted in the teachings of minister and theologian John Wesley.
“I was born into a Methodist family — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, claiming to go all the way back to the coalfields hearing the Wesleys preach,” Clinton said in a 2015 sermon, referencing how Wesley traveled throughout the United States in the mid-18th century preaching to the poor.
Eager to pass on their faith, the family became members of First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge. The congregation mirrored its suburban surroundings — conservative, mostly white, and primarily concerned with the immediate community. Yet it was there that Clinton first encountered social justice-minded theology at the hands of Don Jones, the church’s youth pastor who would influence her for years to come. Under Jones, Clinton was reportedly exposed to theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Christian thought leaders who, while not especially radical (Niebuhr is the favorite theologian of both John McCain and Barack Obama), stressed the need for humanity to care for the less fortunate.
“Don opened up a new world to me, and helped guide me on a spiritual, social and political journey of over 40 years,” Clinton said in 2009.
Using these writers and the Bible as a framework, Jones arranged trips and events that wrenched Clinton out of her suburban bubble. He convened discussions on drugs, crime, and teenage pregnancy; took his youth on field trips to Chicago’s South Side to confront issues of poverty and race; and in 1962, as the African American Civil Rights movement swept the United States, Jones drove Clinton and others to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.
“Here she is in the middle to upper-middle class church in Chicago, and along comes this youth minister that has been rocked a little bit from the 1960s, and he’s got this passion for social action,” Burns Strider, a friend of Clinton’s and faith outreach director for her 2008 campaign, told ThinkProgress. “And he starts loading up all those suburban kids, dragging them into the city, and making them work on soup lines. Hillary was captivated to the core by it.”
Although Jones’ spiritual tutelage expanded Clinton’s social consciousness, it didn’t turn her into raging liberal overnight. When she attended Wellesley College after high school, she served as president of the school’s Young Republicans club and identified as a “Goldwater Girl.”
But Clinton never forgot Jones’ lessons, and once sent him an angst-written letter in which she complained that other students rejected her chosen identity as “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.” It was one of the first hints of what would become Clinton’s lifelong project of slow-moving liberalization, a glacial shift that roughly matched the United Methodist Church’s own methodical trudge leftward over the course of several decades.
A public theology rooted in private conviction
Clinton’s Methodism remained a powerful part of her identity throughout her adult life, but grew into a public force in the 1990s during her tenure as First Lady of the United States. After moving into the White House with her husband Bill — a Baptist — in 1993, the two regularly attended services with their daughter Chelsea at Foundry Methodist Church, a historic congregation near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Pastors and lay leaders enthusiastically welcomed the couple, which Clinton still visits on occasion — sometimes to sit in the pews, sometimes to preach from the pulpit.
“This community — because indeed that’s what it is — was a place where we could worship, study, contemplate, be of service, get some good pastoral advice, and step outside all the commotion of life in the White House and Washington,” Clinton told the Foundry congregation in 2015. “Here we were, not ‘the First Family’ — we were just our family. And we relished and cherished that time. We always have felt part of the Foundry family.”
Her faith was never confined to church walls, however. While delivering a speech at the University of Texas in 1993, Clinton coined a phrase — grounded in an explicitly religious framework — that would later grace the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
“We need a new politics of meaning,” she said. “We have to summon up what we believe is morally and ethically and spiritually correct and do the best we can with God’s guidance.”
Meanwhile, Clinton maintained close ties with the denomination of her birth, the United Methodist Church. She often recites a phrase popular among Methodists and sometimes attributed to John Wesley, citing a version of it during her Super Tuesday victory speech in March 2016.
“Like many of you, I find strength and purpose from my family and my faith,” she said. “They gave me simple words to live by: Do all the good you can for all the people you can for as long as you can.”
She also still regularly speaks to Methodist-only groups, and even addressed the denomination’s national assembly in 1996, delivering a speech that called for a fusion of faith and a social conscience.
“For me, the Social Principles of the Methodist Church have been as much a description of our history, as a prod for 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.”
Not everything about her faith was for public consumption. According to Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet, she joined an all-female Bible study group in Washington affiliated with the Fellowship (aka, “the Family”), filled with the wives of influential men. Clinton has been relatively tight-lipped about the nature of the group’s discussions, which leaned conservative and believed that people accrue power only through God’s will. But she has acknowledged profound influence on her life, noting that scripture passages sent to her from members guided her throughout her tenure as First Lady.
Neither her denomination nor her conservative friends kept Clinton from taking some progressive positions, of course. An adamant supporter of a woman’s right to choose, she once sparked controversy by suggesting that in countries where women struggle to have access abortions “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” And while Clinton opposed same-sex marriage for years, she had what commentators called an “honest shift” on the issue in 2013, finally endorsing marriage equality after she left her position as Secretary of State. Even as she called for LGBT rights — something many saw as long overdue — Clinton still stressed the need to consider conservative congregations who “struggle to reconcile the teachings of their religion” with same-sex marriage, a possible nod to both the UMC’s ongoing debate over the issue and her own years-long, faith-rooted resistance to endorsing marriage equality.
The core of Clinton’s sometimes quiet faith appears to be rooted not just in high-minded theology, but also in the real, human communities it forges. Strider told ThinkProgress that Clinton would often task him with reaching out to her home church during her 2008 bid for the White House, a job with little political value but of immense personal concern for the then-senator.
“Eight years ago, late on Sunday night or early on Monday mornings, I would get the prayer list from [Clinton’s] home church in Little Rock, Arkansas and pass it on to her,” Strider said. “If someone was hurting, Hillary would call and check on her. She would just go through that prayer list, praying for all these people.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Faith as a political asset
Clinton’s faith is arguably the most unimpeachably genuine aspect of her public persona, but it has the added benefit of being politically useful. Much has been said about her popularity with African American voters during the 2016 primary season, for instance, but less discussed is how both Clintons spent decades reaching out to the churches that included historically black congregations. According to Strider, Clinton regularly attended pentecostal “camp” meetings in Arkansas when her husband was governor, a local gesture that quickly expanded to include meetings throughout the region. The two became recognized regulars at the spiritual events, and earned a reputation as faithful churchgoers among Southern pentecostals — a group that includes many African Americans, a key part of the Democratic machine in the Deep South.
“Any event she does in the South, you’ll find two or three pentecostal ministers behind stage who she already knows and wants to see,” Strider said.
The experience also honed Clinton’s ability to “speak Jesus,” allowing her to develop a spiritual parlance that transcended the white, suburban Methodism of her youth. While visiting Columbia, South Carolina in May 2015, Clinton asked local African American pastor Rev. Frederick Donnie Hunt what Bible verse he was studying. When Hunt replied 1 Corinthians 13, Clinton responded, “Oh I know it well,” and proceeded to recite the verse from memory and offer a short exegesis about its meaning.
Soon thereafter, Hunt announced his support for Clinton’s candidacy.
“I was impressed and glad that she knew the scripture that I was reading and studying at the time,” Hunt later told CNN. “It impressed me that someone running for president has that background. It is important to me that we have a president that has some belief.”
This kind of religious fluency is downplayed in Democratic circles nowadays, in part because roughly a quarter of left-wing voters now claim no religious tradition and prefer a candidate that never discusses their faith. But the Democratic Party remains a “big tent” that doubles as a revival tent, and a recent Pew poll reported that a full 64 percent of African Americans still think political candidates say too little about their faith.
Hence the CNN exit polls from the 2016 South Carolina Democratic primary, which found that more than 57 percent of voters say they attend worship weekly. By contrast, only 42 percent of Palmetto state citizens overall said they show up to worship weekly in a February Gallup poll — meaning Democratic voters are more likely to attend church than the average Sandlapper.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clinton crushed Sanders in the South Carolina primary, winning 73.5 percent of the vote to his measly 26 percent.
But for all the good Clinton’s faith has done her in the primary season, it may pay far more important dividends if she becomes the official Democratic nominee to challenge Trump in the general election. The business mogul confounded pundits this year by inexplicably accruing support from a subset of the evangelical vote, but that group was eventually revealed to be self-identified conservative Christians who aren’t that religious. More churchgoing evangelicals are far less supportive of the bombastic Trump and his policies — and while theological conservatives are unlikely to flock to a pro-choice and pro-marriage equality candidate, Strider hinted that Clinton’s crossover religious appeal is already swaying a few right-wing voters.
“I’m hearing from men and women clergy that I normally don’t who are wanting to engage in helpful ways for Hillary this time,” Strider said. “It’s pretty exciting … a lot of them are folks who we suspect are pretty open-minded in the ballot box, but would never say it or talk about it publicly. A lot of them are stepping forward this time.”
Political analysts have long associated the phrase “the personal is political” with the Clintons. But this year, the political may also be spiritual.
This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Check out other other pieces on the faith of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders.