When Hillary Clinton takes the stage in Philadelphia this week, she has a unique opportunity to speak to a nation engaged in collective soul-searching. As the Christian right has evidently vacated all pretense of seeking a candidate who embodies Christian values, Clinton can step into the space that they have vacated. She can pledge to be the candidate who will be guided by her faith.
She is has deep religious roots that she can draw on.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Clinton turned to theology to make sense of the political and social turmoil unfolding around her. She read theologians Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr as she wrestled with how Christians ought to engage the world, pursue justice and reform society.
In recent weeks and months, Clinton has returned to her United Methodist roots on the campaign trail. In February, as she celebrated her victory in the South Carolina primary and began to pivot to the general election, she countered Donald Trump’s politics of division by turning to Scripture. In contrast with Trump, who had fumbled an effort to quote “two Corinthians,” she centered her call for unity in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love never fails. … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Clinton acknowledged that it might sound odd for a presidential candidate to be calling for “more lovingkindness in America,” but she insisted that these were “words to live by, not only for ourselves, but also for our country.” And earlier this month, in the aftermath of the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Clinton spoke to the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s general conference in Philadelphia. Borrowing from the book of Proverbs, she implored her audience to listen to one another, to seek common ground, to “incline our ears to wisdom and apply our hearts to understanding.”
“This is about our country,” she said. “And I think it’s about our faith.” Then she quoted again from 1 Corinthians. And she concluded with a charge from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Let us not grow weary in doing good.”
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This isn’t the first campaign where Clinton has enveloped her politics in Christian theology. And if history is a guide, cynics are sure to cry foul. In the past when Clinton has spoken of her faith, she has often been perceived as inauthentic or accused of political pandering.
But for Clinton, from the 1960s to her years in her husband’s White House to her own campaigns for the presidency, faith has always been a touchstone.
Take an early moment in her husband’s presidency. The first 75 days in the White House had bordered on disastrous for the Clintons. As first lady, she was struggling to find her footing as she pressed forward with health care reform, while fending off investigations into her Arkansas financial dealings and persistent rumors of her husband’s infidelities. Most poignantly, her father lay on his deathbed.
She was grasping for spiritual mooring for herself, and for the nation, when she spoke to an audience of 14,000 at the University of Texas Field House in Austin. There she spoke of “the rumblings of discontent” sounding beneath the economic prosperity, political freedom and triumphant democracy of the post-Cold War world.
“We lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively — that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means that we have a place where we belong no matter who we are,” she said.
“We need a new politics of meaning,” she announced in the most memorable phrase from the speech. “We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society … that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Clinton’s call resonated with those present. But the national media had a field day ridiculing the first lady’s “psychobabble.”
Unrelenting investigations into White House practices certainly didn’t enhance her moral authority. The religious right refused to join her in a spiritual quest, and the secular left mocked her desire to embark on one. Clinton became more guarded, it seems, about speaking from her soul.
Now, she finds herself once again poised to offer a compelling spiritual vision to the nation. Like then, she is dogged by allegations of dishonesty and corruption. But the utter collapse of good faith on the religious right offers her an unprecedented opportunity to proclaim her progressive Christianity to a nation badly in need of hope.
“Part of the great challenge of living is defining yourself in your moment,” Clinton told those gathered in Austin more than two decades ago. This is her moment to redefine herself, and her campaign. She can do so by drawing on the faith she has always harbored.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is chair of the history department at Calvin College. The author of “A New Gospel for Women,” she is currently writing a religious history of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
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