How Clinton's Methodist faith shapes her politics
Posted October 5, 2016
Hillary Clinton found the Democratic Party through her Methodist faith. A youth pastor helped her get involved in issues like the Civil Rights movement and poverty, and a Methodist student magazine shifted her thinking about the political system's role in helping everyday Americans.
Throughout her career, Clinton has seen public service as a way to put her faith into action, as Kristin Du Mez, chair of Calvin College's history department, noted in a recent article for Religion & Politics.
But this sense of divine calling is lost on many voters. Only half of U.S. adults (48 percent) view the Democratic Party's presidential nominee as very or somewhat religious, according to a Pew Research Center report from January.
The problem is her party. Since the Moral Majority worked to wed the interests of evangelical Christians and conservative lawmakers in the 1970s, the Republican Party has nearly monopolized religious language.
"To judge by public perceptions, and more than a few pundits, the Democratic Party is the default home of secularists and atheists, with practicing believers shunted to a side room only to be trotted out when a political event needs a gloss of godliness," wrote David Gibson for Religion News Service as this year's Democratic National Convention drew to a close.
Nearly 3 in 10 Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters (29 percent) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 12 percent of Republicans, according to a Pew survey released this month.
Although religion helped bring Clinton to politics, her political life has not always been friendly to religion. References to faith practically disappeared from Clinton's public appearances after she ran for president in 2008 because they seemed like a liability.
"Her faith was criticized, both by conservatives who thought her personal practice of religion was too liberal, and liberals who didn't want her talking about religion," The Washington Post reported in a 2014 article about Clinton's re-emerging willingness to talk about religion.
However, Methodism, including its push toward social justice activism, has been a key theme of Clinton's 2016 campaign, as the Democratic presidential nominee tries to appeal to religious voters turned off by GOP nominee Donald Trump's divorces, religion-related flubs or stance on immigration. A video shared by Clinton's official Twitter account in August showed her wiping away a tear while watching a Methodist pastor deliver the DNC's benediction.
Clinton has tried to embrace talking about her faith this election, even if some voters remain confused. At a campaign stop in January, a supporter asked Clinton to describe why religious voters should take her seriously, prompting her to offer a brief reflection on faith and the Democratic Party.
"I think that any of us who are Christian have a … constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it," she said, according to The New York Times. "Different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it."
Throughout her life, Clinton herself has drawn different conclusions about what Methodism has to say about politics.
From her father and other church members, she learned the value of self-reliance and personal redemption. From her mother, youth pastor and motive Magazine, a desire to care for and protect the less fortunate, wrote Du Mez, who is working on a book about the candidate's religious history.
Clinton helped lead Wellesley College's Young Republicans club early in her college career, but the latter concerns led Clinton to the Democratic Party, which she saw as the proper ally in her faith-driven efforts to help others. She's tried to articulate this sense of moral calling throughout her political career, but many Americans saw her pro-abortion rights and pro-same-sex marriage stances anti-religious.
"One of the reasons (Clinton's) religious sincerity is questioned could be the clash of her social positions with the priorities of the U.S. religious right, which is often perceived as synonymous with U.S. Christianity," America Magazine reported.
The challenge for Clinton throughout the rest of the election season will be finding a way to communicate her faith sincerely and in a way that makes her pursuit of the presidency seem natural, and not like a power grab. She'll have to navigate her party's awkward relationship with religion, while other Democratic leaders attempt to do the same.
"If we really are the inclusive party then we should include everyone," Paul Vallone, a New York City councilman and practicing Catholic, told RNS. "Everyone's got to feel that they can bring their faith to this party and not feel ostracized for it. That still hasn't happened. We really need to focus on that."
Clinton says her faith leads her to try to be better, which would be an asset if she makes it to the White House.
"The part of the (Christian) message that I certainly have tried to understand and live with is to look at yourself first, to make sure you are being the kind of person you should be in how you are treating others," Clinton said at that January campaign stop. "I am by no means a perfect person, I will certainly confess that to one and all, but I feel the continuing urge to try to do better, to try to be kinder, to try to be more loving, even with people who are quite harsh."
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