Speaking from a Methodist pulpit on Sunday morning, Hillary Clinton explained her political vision with a reference to the classic Sunday school song “This Little Light of Mine.”
“Too many people,” she said, “want to let their light shine, but they can’t get out from under that bushel basket. It is way too heavy to lift alone. And that’s where the village comes in.”
It is the 200th anniversary of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, where the Clintons worshiped regularly when Bill Clinton was president. Hillary Clinton spoke during the bicentennial celebration Sunday about how her faith and faith community have shaped her.
She spoke of her mother, who she said taught her the wisdom of John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist church, who believed in putting faith into action. She spoke of her youth pastor. She spoke of her college church, her church in Arkansas when her husband was governor of the state, and of walking to Foundry through the snow from the White House in 1993.
“In place after place after place,” Clinton said, “the Methodist church and my fellow Methodists have been a source of support, honest reflection and candid critique.”
Talking about her religious commitments has presented a bit of a quandary for Clinton as she runs for president. There is no obvious way for her to talk about her faith on the campaign trail. But avoiding the topic doesn’t seem like a good idea, either.
Voters consistently say they want politicians to have faith, yet they often don’t believe them when they talk about it. For Clinton, this seems especially true. When she talks about her religious beliefs and practices, people often don’t believe her. More than half of Americans say they don’t trust Clinton, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Her campaign has struggled to present her as authentic and relatable.
Talking about her faith can be a way to connect to voters personally and get them to feel like they know Clinton and trust her. But it can also just make the skeptical more suspicious.
The Bible’s influence on Clinton
Her faith was on display earlier this summer when Clinton walked into a bakery in Columbia, S.C. As Dan Merica reported for CNN, Clinton stopped to talk to the Rev. Frederick Donnie Hunt, a black Baptist minister who was studying 1 Corinthians 13 in his Bible. Clinton commended Hunt for “doing what is the most important thing to do … continuing to study and learn what the scripture says and what it means.”
When the minister said he always learns something new when he studies the Bible, Clinton replied, “Well, it’s alive. It’s the Living Word.”
Her response impressed Hunt, who voted for Obama in the last Democratic presidential primary. But it surprised him, too.
“I’d like to know that my president has some religious beliefs in God,” Hunt said. “I was really impressed that she knew that particular scripture.”
Hunt is not alone in wanting his candidates to be religious. A 2014 Pew poll found that nearly half of Americans would like to see more religion in politics. More than 40 percent of Americans think political leaders don’t talk about their faith enough. This is even true for many Democrats, though the political left is seen as less religious. Nearly a third of Democrats told Pew that political leaders talk too little about faith. Another Pew poll found that 42 percent of Democrats want to know that their candidates believe in God.
Merica reports that Clinton’s Christian faith is “not overt.” She is a lifelong Methodist, but “you wouldn’t know that from listening to her speeches.”
Over time, Clinton has spoken of her faith, however. Last year, she spoke of faith’s influence on her life to a group of 7,000 Methodist women.
“I have always cherished the Methodist church,” she said, “because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the obligation of social gospel.”
The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Methodists, members of a mainline church with evangelical roots, have traditionally emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and the imperative of social activism and caring for your neighbor. Clinton learned about this tradition from her Methodist youth minister, Don Jones.
In 2009, when her former youth minister died, she wrote about the influence he had on her life. A one-time Young Republican who supported Barry Goldwater, Clinton became a liberal in part because her minister introduced her to the social gospel. He exposed her to theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and taught her the meaning of “faith in action.”
Clinton has also spoken of the Bible’s importance in her life, including in a 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review interview.
“The Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking,” she said, noting that her answer might appear predictable. “I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”
In 2008, Clinton told CNN that she had “tried to take my beliefs, my faith, and put it to work my entire life” to help others. In 2007, she told the network about how she prays regularly and carries a Bible in her purse.
She also appeared on the televangelist Pat Robertson’s show, “The 700 Club,” telling guest host David Brody, “My faith has sustained me, it has informed me, it has saved me.”
Clinton repeated this commitment on Sunday: “I am a Methodist,” she said, “by birth and by choice.”
Skepticism from voters
To more than a few Americans, however, talk of faith can seem overeager. Conservative Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia, for example, “wonders about the political expediency.”
“Possibly Mrs. Clinton prays more than I do, or you do,” Scalia wrote on her blog when Clinton launched her most recent presidential campaign. “I’m not going to gainsay any of that. But it is remarkable to me how her faith is always the first information that comes up in any new campaign.”
Perhaps such skepticism is justified during campaign season. Candidates can seem like they just tell voters whatever they want to hear. It is undeniable that Clinton has used religion to campaign. Running for the Senate in 2000, she spoke in 27 New York churches in the two months before the election. She spoke in six churches the morning of the vote.
Skepticism has surfaced from those on the right and those on the left.
As first lady, for example, Clinton helped start the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children in Washington. Some saw this as a deeply cynical act. Writers Jeff Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce have argued that Clinton was motivated by political ambition, trying to use Mother Theresa to win the sympathy of religious voters. Sharlet and Joyce saw the orphanage, which no longer exists, as a symbol of centrist Democrats’ betrayal of reproductive rights.
Clinton, for her part, said she felt she was following directions from God.
“I know that we often picture, as we’re growing up, God as a man with a white beard,” Clinton said in a 2010 speech. “But that day, I felt like I had been ordered, and that message was coming not just through this diminutive woman but from someplace far beyond.”
Has Clinton been ‘too religious’?
Some have criticized Republican candidates for their “God talk.” In the 1990s, however, Clinton was perceived by some as being overly religious.
One of the first things she did when she got to the White House was to join a Bible study, made up of a bipartisan group of Washington women.
As first lady, Clinton also met regularly with Michael Lerner, a liberal rabbi and the editor of the magazine Tikkun. They discussed Lerner’s ideas for how, as he wrote, “to build a society based on love and connection, a society in which the bottom line would not be profit and power but ethical and spiritual sensitivity and a sense of community, mutual caring and responsibility.”
She promoted the rabbi’s religious vision in a major speech she gave on “the politics of meaning” in 1993, calling for national, spiritual renewal.
Writing for the New York Times, Michael Kelly said she was trying to reclaim the adjective “religious” for her own brand of liberalism.
“Her sense of purpose,” Kelly wrote, “stems from a world view rooted in the activist religion of her youth and watered by the conviction of her generation that it was destined (and equipped) to teach the world the errors of its ways. Together, both faiths form the true politics of her heart, the politics of virtue.”
The 1993 profile was titled “Saint Hillary.”
Kelly and political observers were surprised that Clinton was as religious as she was, just like the minister in South Carolina was surprised that Clinton knew 1 Corinthians 13. But maybe they just weren’t paying attention.
A consistent, Methodist faith
In Arkansas in the 1980s, at about the time that Chelsea was born, Clinton was active in her church. She taught Sunday school and was part of a women’s prayer group. She gave talks on the underlying principles of Methodism and filled a notebook with biblical quotes.
In 1981, the Clintons went to Israel on a trip led by a Baptist minister, an experience both Hillary and Bill Clinton, a lifelong Southern Baptist, have cited as personally important. People were still skeptical, though.
“The intensity of their faith seemed to increase in proportion to their growing ambitions and responsibility in careers where the rewards of adulation and accomplishment were counterbalanced by the strains of compromise and criticism,” David Maraniss, an editor at the Washington Post, wrote in his 1995 biography of Bill Clinton.
If Hillary Clinton’s faith is disingenuous, it has been surprisingly consistent over the years. Nevertheless, people are surprised and sometimes suspicious when Clinton talks about her faith.
Paul Kengor, a professor at the conservative Christian Grove City College, suggests that some are surprised because the media doesn’t recognize the religious left. Christians are seen as conservative and typically opposed to “godless liberals,” at least in media narratives.
“There seems no question that Hillary is a sincere, committed Christian and has been since childhood,” Kengor writes in “God and Hillary Clinton,” which was published in 2007. “Hillary is a very liberal Christian, and would be categorized as part of the religious left, along with millions of Christian Americans — a designation that appears to have disappeared from the media’s lexicon now that the secular press is obsessed with fears over the religious right.”
It’s not just the media, though. Many Americans don’t see Clinton as religious. The editors of Christianity Today wrote in 2008 about how many evangelicals “respond with a surprising amount of disgust upon hearing Hillary’s name.” The editorial condemned the more-egregious attacks on Clinton but also acknowledged that, to many, her faith just doesn’t seem genuine.
Portraying a genuine faith has always a problem for Americans aspiring to the presidency, according to Gary Scott Smith, author of “Religion in the Oval Office.” Voters want their leaders to have a religious faith, but they’re also skeptical.
What does authentic faith look like on the campaign trail? How can it be distinguished from cynical manipulation of the religious rhetoric that so many Americans hold dear?
“We can never be certain about the true faith commitments of any president,” Smith writes. “Depending on their view of the nature of a president’s faith and the impact it has on his policies, some see him as a pious pretender and a holy hypocrite while others consider him a biblically sound, faithful follower of Christ.”
Faith is a catch-22 for Hillary Clinton: It’s not clear how she should talk about faith on the campaign trail. Voters want to hear about her beliefs, but they also often don’t believe her.
This analysis is by Daniel Silliman, an instructor of American religion and culture at the Heidelberg University’s Heidelberg Center for American Studies.