The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1993 we interviewed Hillary Clinton about religion and politics. Here’s what she said.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton walk together toward the oval office from the motorcade in 1993. (Photo by Rich Lipski/The Washington Post)
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In April, 1993, Martha Sherrill, then a Style reporter at The Washington Post, interviewed then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in her West Wing office at the White House. The interview was part of an ongoing biographical series and focused on the influences of Clinton’s parents, her views of religion and politics, and the formative role played by her Methodist youth minister, Don Jones, during her early teenage years in Park Ridge, Ill.     

The following is an edited transcript.

Sherrill: How do you think being raised a Methodist influenced you in particular?

Clinton: I think it influenced me a lot. I think that it influenced me because my father was such a strong believer in Methodism and had such a history with the Methodist church, which he traced back through his parents and his grandparents in England and Wales, and all of the early Methodist preaching and reaching out to people in the coal mines and all that, so it was like part of my personal history. And then the church itself really appealed to me, because, well, the church I grew up in was very child-oriented, very supportive of kids in their early years as they tried to find their way through faith, not in a dogmatic way, but in a real open way in which anything could be discussed. No question was out of bounds. And I think that gave me a grounding in my faith that has sustained me. And the whole discipline of the Methodist church appeals to me, with the emphasis on scripture and reason and tradition and experience. So for both family and personal reasons it just made a real fit for me.

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Sherrill: Did you get a lot from the church?

Clinton: I got a lot from the church and a lot from my parents, really the whole side of my father's family, because we, we all were christened in this little church in Scranton. . . . every year we went back to Scranton, twice a year, once at Christmas and once in the summer and spent long times there, so there was a, there was a sense in which the church in their experience was part of the present, you know? It was a part of the real motivating force in our lives, and then growing up in the church I grew up in, you know, was very supportive. But Don Jones [her former youth minister] had a particularly important effect because he came into my life at the time when, you know, kids start wondering what all this is about, and whether they want to be a part of it and whether they believe it, or just their parents make them go to church, you know, and he gave a sense of social mission and personal commitment to faith that I found very unifying. We had a lot of fun when we did it, we just had a great time.

Sherrill: It seems he brought a lot of the outside world to Park Ridge?

Clinton: Yes.

Sherrill: And he described Park Ridge at the time as a place where maybe no black person had ever worshipped in the church where you were going.

Clinton: Unless they had been some visiting dignitary from some African country [laughs], I think that's probably right.

Sherrill: Yeah, and the sense of a social revolution taking place, was, I think, very remote.

Clinton: That's absolutely right, yeah. He opened it in an experiential way. We did a lot of exchanges with black and Hispanic kids in Chicago, we went out and worked with a lot of Mexican migrants and their families. And when I say “worked with,” I mean I babysat the children while all the parents would be able to go out and do something else. Because, when I was growing up -- and this is hard to imagine now if you fly in and out of O'Hare and that's all you know about suburban Chicago -- there was this farmland everywhere and in my elementary school years, we went to school for part of the year with the children of Mexican migrants, who would be just camped half a mile from the school because we had all of this agricultural land. O'Hare airport wasn't even built as a big commercial airport, it was on a military reserve base. It really came to flowering in the late fifties, so the whole environment in which I was raised changed from fairly rural and pastoral, even though it was urban, to being very suburban. And he made it possible for us to reach beyond that, and also did intellectually, because some of my fondest memories were, you know, we'd be at MYF [Methodist Youth Fellowship] on Sunday night, and we'd be reading E. E. Cummings or T.S. Eliot or looking at Picasso prints and thinking about what they meant to us. I mean, nobody ever did anything like that [laughs] in my experience. It was just a wonderful opportunity.

Sherrill: Do you remember any reading in particular? Any that stayed with you?

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Clinton: Oh! Well, we read E. E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot and [W.H.] Auden and [Dietrich] Bonheoffer and, let's see, [Reinhold] Niebuhr, I think. He would just give us, like, little excerpts of things to read. I mean, we weren't sitting around reading long poems, so I don't want you to get that impression. That was not what we were doing--

Sherrill: [Laughs]

Clinton: But, you know, for thirty minutes before we had our social hour, to hand us like an E. E. Cummings poem, which I'll never forget, which goes something like: "Dying is fine, but death obey me, I wouldn't like death for good." And, you know, you're fifteen years old and you're asked: "What does that mean to you?" That was just mind-blowing for me, and I just felt like there was this whole other world out there that was exciting and challenging that he linked to our faith! I mean, it was part of our religious experience. It wasn't just an intellectual enterprise, it was this: "What does this mean to you as a Christian? What does this mean to you as a person? How do you link what you feel about this with people you may never know in some faraway land or in the inner city of Chicago?" It was just great for me. And then he took some of us down to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach one night in downtown Chicago, a really radical thing to do. I mean, it was just, it was a wonderful time for me.

Sherrill: By that time, did you have a sense of commitment, of conviction, a feeling that you wanted to devote yourself to public service? What would be your earliest memory of thinking about the world -- that it wasn't a fair place -- and wanting to change things?

Clinton: I remember a friend of mine in my neighborhood, when we were probably about ten, I don't know where we got this idea, but we read something about poor kids in some place in Chicago. So we organized this fundraising effort which consisted of what we called, a neighborhood “Olympics.” You know, and we had all these contests and kids that had to pay a nickel or a quarter or something to participate. I hadn't thought about this for a long time but then an old friend, you know, you walked in and I was signing a letter to a boy who I went to school with all my life who lived two blocks away, who I hadn't heard from since we graduated from high school, you know, sending me pictures and reminding me of stuff. And a few months ago I got this picture where I'm standing there with my best friends from my neighborhood and there's this distinguished-looking, sort of father-knows-best character standing there, and we're handing him a paper bag filled with money, which was probably twenty dollars, which was our contribution to a charitable effort on behalf of these kids. And so, my mother was very concerned about injustice and unfairness and kind of kept that on the forefront of our minds, and so I remember doing that when I guess I was about ten. And then when I was in seventh and eighth grade, I became very interested in, you know, why people weren't helped, why we didn't try to help more people, and I just remember being very impressed by my father. You know, my father was a Republican, and he was not any kind of bleeding heart at all. He was a very straightforward person and very much a man of his time, sort of coming of age in World War II, the Depression, 1950s, but I was always impressed by some of the things that he did, like he had a man one time who he found drunk on the doorstep of his small little plant where he did drapery fabrics. And, you know, the man wanted a handout, and my father said: "I'll give you a job. If you come in and work I'll give you a job." And…my father not only gave him a job, but he helped him invest his money, helped him buy property, he--you know, it was like, you would ask him, he wouldn't have any sort of theory about it, he would just say: "Well, you know, the guy said he wanted help and so I tried to help him." And so between my mother's more, kind of, general feeling about the world not being a fair place, and my father never buying into any of that in any particular way, but in his own personal way trying to help people and connect with them, I just, I just had this sense from a very early time that you had to do both. You had to try to be. Sometimes people do either/or. They are good to their own families, They are good to other people like them. And I think that is very important, I mean, because the alternative, which is to care about people very far away and to mistreat those closest to you, is not very good either. So you need to try to meld those, I mean, you have to worry about those closest to you. That's where your principle obligations are. And if you can help one person who you find drunk on your doorstep and get his life together, and over time support him, that may be more important than making a lot of speeches that you don't follow up on and helping somebody far away. On the other hand, what you do in your personal life has to be seen in the larger context of, you know, the community, the country, the world. Not to paralyze you, but to understand how it all fits together. And I felt real lucky to have those two, in a way, come together in my life.

Sherrill: Don Jones speculated that, perhaps, growing up, and then later in college, that while you were comfortable being competitive, that maybe standing out and being a leader, which you were naturally, was sort of embarrassing for you. . . . Is that part of how you were raised? Or something just naturally about you that you—

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Clinton: Well, I think that's an interesting thing for him to say. I think that-- have repeatedly felt, over my lifetime I, that I really, I don't have any personal desire to be in any particular position. That has never been my goal. I have a burning desire to do what I can to try to make the world around me, kind of going out in concentric circles maybe, better for everybody. I would be so happy if tomorrow we could wave a magic wand and I could walk down any street in Washington, D.C., and I wouldn't be afraid of being mugged. If I could go to any park in the city at any time of day or night with my friends and we could sit around and have a conversation and watch children playing and have young teenagers holding hands, and you wouldn't be living in fear. I don't care who gets the credit for that. But that's how I see my life. I mean, I want to live in a place that helps everybody be better than they are and achieve whatever their potential is. I don't care who's president. I don't care who's governor. I don't care who's the big muckety-muck that gets attention. I just want the conditions to change. And that's always the way that I have felt. And it is. I don't talk about it a lot, because it sounds sort of stupid, I suppose, because here I am, I've got a lot of wonderful aspects of my life. My husband is president, I'm very proud of him and I think he's going to be a great president, because I think he cares about the right things. But I told him all during the campaign that if I thought there had been anybody else who I thought could talk about the world the way we see it, who could motivate people to understand they had to change personally, and it wasn't just some top-down programmatic approach to our lives that we needed to change, it was who we were, and the meaning in our own lives, heck, I would have been ecstatic about that. I just, I just want this country to realize what its real future could be and to come to terms with a lot of the problems that it's had, and to work them out, and that's what I care about in a political and day-to-day sense, about how we live together and how we support each other and how we take care of each other. I don't care who gets the credit. That is irrelevant to me.

Sherrill: Alan Schecter [Hillary’s Wellesley professor and senior advisor] said that you were never inflammatory or radical in any way in college, and I'm just wondering if you gave a lot of thought to how much of an activist you wanted to be at that time, or if it was just your nature to be more cautious.

Clinton: I don't know if cautious is the right word. I like to favor what is being advocated can actually bring about results. Because there are very few sweeping events that you see historically whether you're talking about a college or a community or a country or anything else. Most change is done incrementally and over time. And I've always felt that way. But, even if you had very strong feelings about something, you had to think about how to best communicate those feelings so that people could understand what you were trying to say. So I learned a lot about that in college because it was a very tough, emotional time to be going to college and to care about issues. And, you know, a lot of my friends were deeply involved in various movements and emotionally committed to them and I supported their feelings but I was always looking for ways that would get to where they wanted to go that would be effective. Maybe some of it was my nature, but maybe some of it was real thoughtful and trying to work out how to help the people who I thought were really more in tune with what was going on. Who understood the pain and the anger and anguish of …the war and all that was happening, but whose emotion was not always tied to being effective, and emotion is a necessary engine, but you've got to have a track that you're going down once you've got it fired up. So that's kind of how I tried to understand what we needed to accomplish. And I have very strong feelings about a whole range of issues and believe deeply a lot of personal and social matters. But I also want to go back to what I said earlier, which is that what I'm interested in is creating an environment in which more people have an opportunity to make good decisions for themselves, and the emotional catharsis that comes with saying it, which gets you the momentary applause and the great screams and yells of approbation are usually not enough to sustain the energy that's needed to bring about the changes that will actually create the conditions that I'd like to see.

Sherrill: Your politics changed a lot when you were in college, like a lot of people, but is there something that happened that was emotional or intuitive -- or (was it) gradually a more rational process?

Clinton: I mean, I'd always been a Republican because my parents were Republican and I lived in a very Republican community and because a lot of the issues that I cared about I could view in terms of what I used to think of as the Republican party. I mean, individual responsibility, conservatism that really does try to conserve, that is not driven by the buzzwords as the modern ideological battles we've had. And part of why I began to change my thinking my senior year in high school was because of a very smart social studies teacher who, in 1964, wanted to have a debate between Johnson and Goldwater. And I was a Goldwater proponent, a Goldwater girl. I used to dress up with all these friends of mine and we'd go do things for Goldwater. And so my social studies teacher took a good friend of mine, who was a leading Democrat, assigned her the task of representing Goldwater, assigned me the task of representing Johnson. We both complained, and she held her ground. So I had to really go and look at things from the other side. I had to do a lot of research. I had to understand all this Great Society stuff. I had to understand civil rights stuff that Johnson was promoting and it was a real eye-opener for me. But, when I got to Wellesley, I was elected president of the College Republicans, and I remember going to a big meeting of Massachusetts Republicans. It was like the convention or something. And I remember walking around, talking to a lot of people, and I began to see more clearly what a movement to a radical version of republicanism actually meant. So I got back to college and it was more emotional and intuitive, I just went to see one of my good friends, who was a vice president of the College Republicans and I said: "I don't know what I am right now, but I know I can't be the president of the College Republicans." It was the first year when I was at Wellesley, '65-'66. I worked very hard to elect Senator Brook. We had worked in his campaign, and I really believed in that. But I didn't believe in a lot of the other stuff that I saw happening in the Republican Party after the Goldwater defeat. And so I went to my friend and I said: "I'm going to resign, so you're going to become the president. I'll do anything that I can to help you but I just can't do this. I just don't believe it anymore. I just can't be a part of it." So I didn't identify with any particular party for a while after that because I was mostly interested in issues and I was reading a lot and trying to understand what I did believe, and I had a wonderful course in International Relations at Wellesley my sophomore year, one of the best college courses I ever had, and the professor, a woman named Barbara Green, was so intellectually acute, I mean she really raised, for us, every possible theory about America's role in the world and it was so apt because we were getting more deeply involved in Vietnam, and I must have spent -- I did all the reading I was supposed to do . . . and  much, much more reading. I remember sitting in the reserve room of the Wellesley Library, hour upon hour, reading everything I could find about what was happening in the world. And I remember also, it was my freshman or my sophomore year, Henry Kissinger came out to Wellesley to speak and we all crowded in to hear him speak. He was speaking about the future of Europe, and I stood in line for a long time to go up and talk to him after it was over, and I remember asking him, you know: "You didn't say very much about Germany's future. What did the future of Europe have to do with the resolving policy in Vietnam?" I was just very interested in all of that. So I just spend a couple of years searching for my own sense of politics, carrying with me some of my sort of bedrock beliefs in promoting individual responsibility and promoting the kind of conservatism in which you do try to sustain institutions like families and communities against the onslaught of change, so that there can be some anchoring for people as they go through the last part of the twentieth century.

I mean, a lot of my politics is a real mixture, it's an amalgam, and I'm so amused when these people try to characterize me: "She is this, therefore she believes the following twenty-five things," you know, half of which I don't believe, but nobody ever stopped to ask me or tried to figure out the new sense of politics that Bill and a lot of us are trying to create--

Sherrill: No labels, or--

Clinton: Yeah, no labels, and all of it.

Sherrill: Most people do say that you're an amalgam--

Clinton: Yeah, they do say that. And yet, the political system, and the reporting of it, keeps trying to force us back into the boxes, it's so much easier to talk about, you don't have to think so much if you just fall back on the old Republican versus Democrat, liberal versus conservative mindset. It's a big disservice to all of us in the process that we're trying to go through trying to figure out how to make sense out of responsibility at an individual and personal level, and how do you support it, instead of saying it's one or the other.

Sherrill: You also stumbled upon Saul Alinsky, at some point in college?

Clinton: It was interesting, because I was looking around for a senior thesis subject, and I was very interested in the proper balance between government programs and community responsibility. And what Alinsky was doing was so interesting to me because he was trying to organize people on the grassroots level, sometimes in opposition to the programs of the Great Society that were trying to help them. I thought it was a terrific kind of case study for the tensions between making people independent and dependent, which you could very easily argue were the kind of conflicts that were going on. And so I read what he had written, and I met him, and I talked to people about him, and I wrote a senior thesis in which I basically argued that he was right in some respects to be against what called then 'The Welfare Files' and even at that early stage, I was against these people who came up with these government programs that were more supporting of the bureaucracy than actually helping people. I've been on this schtick for 25 years, and I really enjoyed getting to meet him because he was a real character, he was a radical. And I talked with Senator Moynihan about him because Senator Moynihan knew him very well. He and Senator Moynihan had very hard-fought but mutually respectful battles about all of these issues. In fact, we had a very nice conversation about Saul Alinksy, because Moynihan is one of the few people who I know now who knew him. So I loved talking to him about that. But that's what I was trying to work out in my own mind, I mean, people have to take responsibility for themselves, they cannot expect the government to come in and make their lives better. But they can expect the government to make conditions in which that responsibility is more likely to be rewarded than penalized. So that's a continuing refrain for me, and he helped me a lot with that.

Sherrill: I read a story in the Boston Globe about your time at Wellesley--

Clinton: I haven't seen that, I need to see that--

Sherrill: And there's a story about how you took a black woman to church with you, one of your first weeks at Wellesley. And I'm thinking, in retrospect, if that seemed a daring thing to have done or --

Clinton: You know, when I got to Wellesley, I had never had any relationship with any black person my age except through school exchanges or my church work. And I was exhilarated by my friendships with all sorts of people. That was one of the experiences that Wellesley gave me, and I don't think we even thought about it, but a friend of mine and I went to church together one Sunday and didn't realize that what we were doing was considered unusual, and it was such a telling moment for me, because I'd not gone to school with any black kids, I'd not gone to church with any black kids, and what seemed at the time then so natural, that here was this friend of mine and we were going to go  to church together, would be viewed as unusual was one of those real "click" experiences that you have in your life. Looking back on in now, I guess it would still be unusual for some people in some parts of our country. Churches on --

Sherrill: Somebody said it's the most segregated hour of--

Clinton: That's right.

Sherrill: I wanted to talk to you just a little bit about your church life. Did you go to church through college or at Yale?

Clinton: I went sporadically when I was in college and in grad school. I'd got to chapel at Wellesley and I'd go into town at Wellesley on occasion, and the same at Yale. I'd go to chapel or, I'd go to--there were a couple of small churches in New Haven that I really liked. There was a really small, beautiful episcopal church that I'd liked to go to.

Sherrill: You shopped around, or--

Clinton: Yeah, I shopped around, but it was mostly because I wanted to go to different services or I wanted to go to different churches because I heard that somebody was going to preach great sermon or some church had a great choir. So I was, yeah, just real open. And I knew that I wasn't going to be living in those communities when I graduated from college or law school so I kept my membership at home.

Sherrill: And, I think there was an interview in the United Methodist magazine where you talk a bit about how when you met the president, you talked about your religious beliefs and what mattered to you, and--

Clinton: Yeah, yeah we did that a lot.

Sherrill: And have you found a church here?

Clinton: I mean, I'm trying. We've been gone for a lot of Sundays. You know what I loved, is going to church at Camp David--

Sherrill: There's a chapel?

Clinton: Yeah, and we went to Easter service there. It was wonderful. I mean, it really had a great feeling. I've been to the church at camp twice, and I've been to church here maybe three or four other times, but I haven't really found a church yet. I'm still just visiting around and meeting people and finding, because of our moving back and forth, that I haven't got my routine down yet.

Sherrill: You somewhat answered this question, but how tied are your religious beliefs? Your feeling of the purpose of your life being tied to your commitment to social action?

Clinton: Very tied. I mean, it's -- I don't really see them as separate. I see them as part of the same set of feelings.

Sherrill: Does it feel like a sense of mission?  That that's just who you are and what you're supposed to be doing?

Clinton: It just feels like who I am. It just feels like--

Sherrill: Not something you have to make yourself do.

Clinton: No, because it's just, I just think about how my life -- I've tried to lead an integrated life and so the spiritual, the emotional, the psychological, and physical, and all of that --I'm not there, I don't want to mislead you. But I'm trying very hard to have that be the primary purpose of my life. I want to feel as though I've led a coherent, integrated life. And the spiritual part of my life is a very important element to me in defining who I am and what I care about. It's a real benchmark, I mean, when I disappoint myself because of the way that I have treated somebody, or behaved, it's against a backdrop of believing that, you know, there's some effort I should make to try to be better than that, and it's something very personal with me.

Sherrill: Okay. Let's talk about the speech [April, 1993, in Austin, TX].  Tell us what's to be learned from the piece by Michael Lerner and his editorial about The Politics of Meaning? Were you very influenced by things he'd written -- or?

Clinton: Not knowingly, although I had a wonderful conversation with Michael during the--I met him for the first time during the Holocaust reception we had out there. And I had read some of his early stuff, like an '88, '89, '87, somewhere back then about why the Democrats were always losing. I don't really remember it other than it was sort of part of the backdrop against which my husband was thinking about all of these things. But I think he's done some very good work, and he's sent me a lot of the stuff that he's written and I'm now reading all of it. I've been more influenced by [Vaclav] Havel. I mean I have read Havel stuff and I don't know that he ever quite used the term "politics of meaning" but he talked a lot about the need for more understanding. But, you know, people in political life -- no one cared about being so obsessed with the programmatic or the issue-driven aspects as much as they needed to be looking for meaning and understanding and interpreting what was happening to people. So I think there's a convergence. Michael came to see me the other day... [unintelligible]. …I think there's a convergence of a lot of people. Much of the energy motivating the sort of responsible fundamental right has come from their sense of life getting away from us, and meaning being lost, and people being turned into kind of amoral decision-makers, because there wasn't any overriding thought that they related to. And I have a lot of sympathy for that. You know, I battled hard for religious parents in Arkansas to be able to teach their own families. I championed home-schooling thirteen years ago, whatever it was, because my view was, if parents were going to make that kind of commitment to their families, that was a value we should support because if it gave meaning to their life, and through-out it, it would give meaning to a lot of other peoples' lives.

And I'm not in any way casting aspersions on any God or on their right to claim anything that they wish to claim. The problem is that, the issue of meaning--and the issue of our daily experiences being grounded in some sense of a greater whole than what we can understand--can be viewed from so many different perspectives. But the search for meaning should cut across all kinds of religious and ideological boundaries. That's what we should be struggling about, not "You have a corner on God and I don't," or "You're the real true person and this other one isn't." I mean, that is an unfortunate and in many ways destructive debate. What we ought to start from is a sense that I think is widely shared now in a lot of elements of society, which is that being economically prosperous, having a religious country, having most people able to participate in the market and have luxuries beyond their grandparents' wildest dreams and all of this stuff that we now have is not sufficient, or leading a meaningful personal life, or a meaningful community life. Then we can argue about what is or is not an appropriate way to--

Sherrill: Then is it government's place to--

Clinton: No! And the answer to that is a no-brainer. There are things that government can do that are more likely to make a condition that allows people to be secure enough to take responsibility for themselves and therefore participate fully in this search for meaning. If you treat people like they're disposable commodities -- whether it's in the workplace or in a government program -- you look on them with contempt because of who they are or what race they are, and you are bound and guaranteed to get the kind of division and alienation that we currently have. And so there are ways that government can promote an environment in which responsibility truly has a chance to flourish. That's really the motivating force behind welfare reform. I mean people may want to do it because they want to punish people, because they're not worthy, but where the president comes from, and where I come from, is that we want government to be empowering and uplifting and not degrading and demeaning and dependency-producing, which is basically what we've had -- out of a lot of good motives -- but nevertheless the results have not worked.

Sherrill: Are you with the president on welfare reform?

Clinton: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Sherrill: 100%?

Clinton: Absolutely. And we've--

Sherrill: There's been an attempt I think to paint you as ideologically to the left, or—

Clinton: I think so much of that is rooted in their desire to put me in a corner or box and try to understand me because I've apparently posed problems for them, which is too bad for them, I guess. But there are ways of doing it that are more likely to be successful than other ways. But in terms of our ultimate goals, I mean, I would like to see welfare as we know it, over the next years, abolished. I mean, that's what I would like to see. I do not like it, nor I do not think it is good for the women and children who are trapped within it. One of my great goals in this health care effort is to remove the Medicaid incentive for people to stay on welfare, by having a system of health care that is available to every American, so you don't have the unfair situation now where some women are on welfare because they get Medicaid. I know women who are single parents who are struggling in the job market, day to day scared because their family will be affected by some health disaster, but are working and not able to get health care. So there's a lot about this that I believe in very strongly that I think will, if we do it right, result in a better situation for the people in general.


Henrietta Reily contributed to this report.