Apr 28, 2014

Why Clinton is speaking of faith

Hillary Clinton is talking about her faith.

It is an all-but foregone conclusion that the former secretary of state, former New York senator, and former first lady is running for president in 2016. It's all-but decided that she'll be the Democratic Party's nominee. And the probable candidate, in probable preparation for her campaign, is talking about religion in a personal way.

At a gathering of about 7,000 United Methodist women on Saturday, Clinton recalled the Methodist church of her childhood. "I love that church," she said, according to the Associated Press. "I love the doors that it opened in my understanding of the world; I loved the way it helped to deepen my faith and ground it."

Clinton speaks of her faith, first, biographically. This can be politically awkward because she speaks of it in the past tense, as a memory and a part of her coming of age. It can seem that Clinton has no current faith except politics. She can be understood as implying that religion isn't relevant to her life today, while actually specifically saying that religion was relevant how she became who she became. Yet in this mode, Clinton's religion talk is important, a biographical key, a critical part of the narrative of her identity. 

She talks about her personal faith to explain how she became a liberal.

Clinton, unlike her husband or the current president, came from a conservative home, a conservative family and community. It was comfortably middle class. Her father was a Barry Goldwater supporter. Whereas Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were raised in places where it seemed that the American system was broken, or flawed, and needed reforms, Hillary Clinton could have accepted the status quo. From her childhood, one could accept that the system worked, and was good, though under threat and in need of defense. She became a liberal, though, and religion is part of that story. When she talks about her religious past, this is faith's function in the narrative.

She was with her Methodist youth group, for example, when she travelled to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1962, a moment she recalls as formative. The youth minister who lead that trip also took the young Illinois Methodists to see poverty in Chicago. He took them to a synagogue to hear a rabbi talk about Israel. He arranged to have an atheist debate a theist. Childhood friend have said that the youth minister, Don Jones, significantly liberalized the young Clinton's outlook.

As one childhood friend told CNN, Jones "was very influential in giving us a different perspective ... It wasn't revolutionary, but he challenged us to look at things in a different way and a broader perspective."

Jones was only Clinton's youth pastor for two years. Yet she wrote him letters after he was forced out of the church, continued to correspond with him from college, and invited him to both of her husband's presidential inaugurations. When he died in 2009, Clinton wrote that "Don taught me the meaning of the words 'faith in action' and the importance of social justice and human rights."

Clinton's talk about faith works to explain this part of her personal development. Her political identity and her understanding of the world were changed by the church, which "opened doors," and which she speaks of in the past tense.

Clinton speaks of faith, secondly, as a way to explain her politics.

She told the Methodist women this last weekend that her faith was a combination of her father's and her mother's. She said that combination is critical to her politics. As the AP explained, 
She struggled as a young woman between her father's insistence on self-reliance and her mother's concern for compassion. 
She reconciled those in the Biblical story of Jesus instructing his disciples to feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. 'The disciples come to Jesus and suggest they send away the people to find food to fend for themselves. But Jesus said, "No. You feed them," Clinton said. 'He was teaching a lesson about the responsibility we all share ... Don't think we can sit back and wait for someone else to step forward and solve these problems.'
That may or may not be a good interpretation of that gospel story. Conservative Christians would point out that Clinton has left out the part about Jesus' miracle, and that nowhere in the story does one see a government bureaucracy established to orchestrate and organize charity. Nevertheless, it is a concise account of Clinton's politics, and shows how her religious beliefs have flowed into political beliefs.

In Clinton's interpretation, for example, there's a synthesis between self-reliance and charity, of not asking for help and giving help too. The disciples learn not to expect others to solve problems, but to solve them themselves. At the same time, the hungry are not told to fend for themselves, but are given things to eat. This synthesis is offered by way of explaining Clinton's own synthesis of her father's worldview and her mother's, which is also a third synthesis, one of religion and politics.

In Bill Clinton's political career, this kind of combination of different positions was called triangulation. His admunistrations' achievements all involved triangulation, from the balanced budget, to reforming entitlement programs, to allowing gays in the military under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He combined conservative and liberal positions, finding the reasonable center. Hillary Clinton's politics are her own, but she's like her husband in this regard, interested in the moderate position, the middle ground, and the swing voter. This comes through in how she talks about her faith as synthesis.

On Saturday, she praised Methodism as a synthesis, saying "I have always cherished the Methodist church because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the obligation of social gospel."

In her college-age correspondence with her youth minister in the 1960s, she was pursuing a synthesis too. Wrestling with her political and religious identity, she wrote Jones in '66, "I wonder if it's possible to be a mental conservative and a heart liberal." In how she talks about her faith now, she's explaining these kinds of personal and political combinations.

She may also be speaking of her personal faith as outreach, part of the expected campaign. The more cynical will likely think this is the only reason that Clinton is talking about faith, but it's not clear how much it really helps her, politically.

Perhaps it could neutralize some attacks from the religious right, which will likely cast her as hostile to middle American values. Perhaps it could reach people who have felt compelled to support conservative candidates because of religious identification, even while they have been uncomfortable with conservative positions and policies. Perhaps talking about faith will connect with voters in a personal way.

Certainly the political activists behind twitter's @Faith4Hillary believe Clinton can benefit politically from speaking of her faith. Burns Strider, a Mississippi Baptist who runs Democratic super PACs, and Rick Hendrix, a North Carolina music promoter and political activist, are actively recruiting religious supporters for the probable candidate. Both Strider and Hendrix also worked for Clinton's 2008 campaign, coordinating her religious outreach. Strider said in an interview then that he wanted people to know about Clinton's faith because of how important it is to her.

He said,
Everyone knows that Senator Clinton is meticulous in her thought process. She knows policy to the last detail. She understands how to make government work for people, be it FEMA or the USDA. 
But, what people don't really know, yet, is that she has spent her entire life living out a real and productive faith . . . 
We renew ourselves daily, right? This epitomizes Senator Clinton; in Little Rock she spent time teaching her Sunday School class because she wanted it to be more Bible-based. She even developed her own Sunday School lessons. She held church picnics on the Governor's mansion lawn. As first lady and senator she has worked to bring about a solution to the genocide in Darfur, expand health coverage to everyone and make sure the families of injured soldiers could use the Family Medical Leave Act, to name only a few initiatives. This is grace in action. People need to know these things because they are who she is.
Democratic presidential candidates have not very successful at making political use of their religious identity in recent years, however. Obama's religious life turned out to be a political liability. John Kerry struggled to connect with religious voters. Al Gore talked about his evangelical Christianity extensively, and yet in the cultural politics of the turn of the century, it never seemed to make an lasting impression. It's not clear why Hillary Clinton's talk of her religious faith would be different than any of those other candidates.

At least right now, though, in the pre-campaign season, Clinton is talking about her faith. She's explaining her own biography by talking about her religious beliefs, and explaining her politics in explaining how they are connected to faith for her. She's reaching out and talking about faith in action, the phrase a rallying cry that's religious and political at the same time.

"Even when we are tired and all we want to do is go away by ourselves to a secluded place and rest awhile," she said Saturday, "even then, especially then, let's make it happen."