The (mostly) secret faith life of Hillary Clinton
In the moments after delivering the biggest speech of her political life, when the balloons had finished falling and the upbeat music had faded out, Hillary Clinton headed backstage at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. She had just become the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party and the convention was about to close. But before she left the arena, she took her husband’s hand and they huddled around a television monitor with her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, and his wife, Anne.
The group stood in silence, watching a feed from the convention platform, where the Rev. Bill Shillady was to offer the final benediction, drawing from a refrain familiar to most Methodists, including Mrs. Clinton. “Do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can,” said Mr. Shillady, a Methodist minister who had buried Mrs. Clinton’s mother and married her daughter. The Democratic candidate wiped her eye.
We know about Mrs. Clinton’s post-convention prayer because a camera crew filmed it and the campaign posted the gauzy video on her Twitter account. It is perhaps the most intimate moment we have seen so far during Mrs. Clinton’s run for the White House, and reaction was swift.
Some jeered, accusing her of sensing a political opening to attract faith voters disillusioned with her seemingly irreligious opponent, Donald J. Trump—of “I drink my little wine” and “have my little cracker” infamy. But others, including those who know her well, were thrilled that Mrs. Clinton had invited the public to see her at her most authentic, practicing the faith that, they say, has guided her from childhood through her very public career.
This was not the first time Mrs. Clinton’s faith surfaced during the 2016 race. Back in January, when pressed by an Iowa voter to describe what she believed, Mrs. Clinton responded with a trinity of faith statements. “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist,” she said. Unpacking those three assertions sheds light on a part of Hillary Clinton that those close to her say is integral to how she lives her life and the decisions she makes.
Growing up, Mrs. Clinton attended First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill., a white, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. She has said in speeches and in her memoir that she recalls her father praying each night before bed and her mother helping out in various church ministries.
As a teenager, Hillary Rodham took a liking to the church’s youth pastor, Don Jones. According to a 2014 CNN profile, Mr. Jones shook things up at First United, focusing on Methodism’s social justice tradition, perhaps at the expense of the faith’s emphasis on personal salvation. Mr. Jones brought the young people to Methodist churches in dicey sections of Chicago in order to expose them to how their peers lived, in sharp contrast to their own lives in Park Ridge. He pushed them to question their faith, once arranging a debate with an atheist about the existence of God. He took them to Jewish synagogues to introduce them to different religions.
His style ultimately did not mesh with conservative Park Ridge, and Mr. Jones left after just two years. But Mrs. Clinton was clearly affected, and she and Mr. Jones stayed in touch for decades after. The pair exchanged letters when Mrs. Clinton headed off to college, and Mr. Jones went on to attend both of her husband’s presidential inaugurations.
When Mr. Jones died in 2009, Mrs. Clinton said that the former youth minister, who looked to figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for inspiration, had “helped guide me on a spiritual and political journey of over 40 years.”
Though Mrs. Clinton has cited a range of spiritual figures from varying faith communities as personal inspirations, her faith journey has been profoundly Methodist, says Mike McCurry, a professor of theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton.
“She is a very much a part of that tradition,” Mr. McCurry told America.
Methodists are guided by what is known as the Wesley Quadrilateral, he said. These are four principles that the denomination’s founder, John Wesley, used to “illuminate the core of the Christian faith for the believer,” according to the United Methodist Church’s website. The four pillars are Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. (According to family lore, Wesley himself converted Mrs. Clinton’s forebears back in 18th-century England.)
Calling Mrs. Clinton “a child of the Methodist Church,” Mr. McCurry said she probably could not offer “a long dissertation on the Wesley Quadrilateral, but she knows her faith tradition and she knows that thinking because it’s very much what you’re exposed to when you grow up in the Methodist Church.”
In the 1960s, Mrs. Clinton was a subscriber to motive, a now-defunct magazine published by the Methodist Student Movement. During that period, the publication was largely anti-war, pro-worker and anti-nuclear weapon, publishing essays by Methodist thinkers and activists, as well as other Christians, including Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O., and Sister Mary Corita Kent, a one-time Catholic sister active in the 1960s peace movement and known for creating colorful pop art.
Mrs. Clinton and her husband were married by a Methodist pastor in Arkansas, and when they moved to Washington, they attended Foundry United Methodist Church, located just a few blocks north of the White House. The church’s pastor at the time, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, can be described as both a theological and social progressive. In 1997, when the Clintons were still attending Foundry, Rev. Wogaman signed a petition disagreeing with the United Methodist Church’s refusal to ordain openly gay ministers or bless same-sex unions. (It would take more than 15 years for Mrs. Clinton to articulate her own support for gay marriage.)
It was during her years as first lady, one Clinton biographer argues, that Mrs. Clinton began to feel reticent about discussing her faith.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin College who is writing a book about Mrs. Clinton’s religious history, points to a 1993 speech in which the first lady called for a “new politics of meaning.” With her husband’s administration in turmoil, Hillary Clinton called on Americans to embrace “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring” and to recognize that “we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
The address was panned in the media, and, Ms. Du Mez suggests, remains the reason Mrs. Clinton still shies away from publicly expressing her faith more often.
The Candidate’s Faith
Nonetheless, there have been some hints throughout the years at the kind of religiosity that informs Mrs. Clinton. She is said to read snippets of Scripture each day; she has cited figures from the familiar canon of progressive, modern theologians, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henri Nouwen, as inspirations; and during her husband’s affair with a White House intern, Mrs. Clinton is said to have leaned especially hard on her faith.
“The moments in which I’ve seen her draw most deeply on her faith have been very, very personal,” Mr. McCurry said. “You can imagine that they are related to events that I had to publicly deal with when I was at the White House.”
“During moments of enormous personal pain for her, I think her faith sustained her,” he said.
A Southern Baptist political activist named Burns Strider met Mrs. Clinton in 2006, when they bonded over how faith informs social justice issues. He then served as a faith outreach director during her 2008 campaign, and today he sends Mrs. Clinton emails several times a week with short passages from Scripture or quotations from figures she has said she enjoys reading, including the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, the poet Mary Oliver and the Christian writer Jim Wallis.
Mr. Strider told America he is happy the campaign seems to be highlighting Mrs. Clinton’s faith, and he hopes it happens more frequently heading into November.
“Good campaigns reveal the real person that carries the label candidate,” he said, praising the video the campaign posted on Twitter. He said he has seen Mrs. Clinton pray backstage before and after big events, often making it a point to meet local clergy. “Films and discussions about Hillary's faith would be doing just that, revealing the real Hillary.”
Back in January, when an Iowa voter pressed Mrs. Clinton on her faith during a town hall event, the candidate riffed on a couple of passages from the New Testament.
“The most important commandment,” she said, “is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself.” She spoke of the Bible’s commandments about “taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up.”
She then asked some rhetorical questions about the Sermon on the Mount and offered an off-the-cuff exegesis. “What is it calling us to do and to understand?” she asked. “Because it sure does seem to favor the poor and the merciful and those who in worldly terms don’t have a lot but who have the spirit that God recognizes as being at the core of love and salvation.”
Finally, she expressed disappointment that Christianity is “sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly” and concluded by saying that reflecting on her faith is “something that I take very seriously.”
One of the reasons Mrs. 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.
Yet Methodists rank as the third largest Christian denomination in the United States, behind Catholics and Southern Baptists. The church’s numbers peaked in the 1960s, with about 11 million members, and today U.S. Methodism claims about 7.5 million adherents. Methodists are part of the mainline Protestant tradition, a slice of Christianity more politically liberal as a whole than their evangelical or Catholic peers.
Ms. Du Mez says Mrs. Clinton’s religiosity can be best perceived through this prism of socially liberal Christianity, both her own tradition and the relationships she has formed with African-American pastors and churches that compose a large part of the Clinton political base.
“Her views on many social issues are absolutely in line with her church’s views, with the possible exception of war and capital punishment,” Ms. Du Mez told America.
That includes toeing the church line on the issue of abortion, says Katey Zeh, an abortion rights activist who has worked for the United Methodist Church. The church’s stance on abortion seems compatible with former president Bill Clinton’s assertion in the 1990s that it should be “safe, legal and rare.”
The church’s “Social Principles” state, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.” But the principles also “recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” The denomination was even one of the founding members of a nonprofit group that pushes for increased access to abortion, though the denomination recently withdrew from the organization.
While Mrs. Clinton’s views on abortion have become more extreme in recent years—she is currently pressing for the repeal of a ban on federal funding for abortions—Ms. Zeh told America that Mrs. Clinton still falls squarely within the Methodist tradition on the issue.
“There’s no conflict,” she said. Methodists should consult the church’s guiding principles, “but there’s also acknowledgement that we don’t all agree about all of these issues.”
The Catholic Church, of course, is against abortion, and no matter how much she draws on her faith, Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to win over some Catholic voters who reject her and her party’s views.
More on Faith to Follow?
With some traditionally Republican evangelicals and Catholics pushing back against Donald. Trump, it is likely that Mrs. Clinton’s team will continue to encourage her to speak more openly about her faith. It could be that her foes will continue to call her a phony when she does so.
Should she decide to continue opening up about her faith on the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton may look to a speech she gave to the 2014 United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Louisville as a model.
Mrs. Clinton was introduced to a crowd of more than 7,000 women and praised as “a relentless advocate for women, children and youth,” to thunderous applause.
Curiously, the woman introducing Mrs. Clinton, Yvette Richards, noted in her introduction that the former secretary of state had covered her own expenses and refused the assembly’s standard honorarium, a contrast to the $300,000-or-so stipends she had been receiving for speeches to Wall Street banks and public universities.
During her speech, Mrs. Clinton delivered her usual thoughts on the need to strengthen opportunities for the disadvantaged, especially women and girls, but this time through an explicit lens of faith. She riffed on her church’s social justice tradition as well as the Gospel, focusing on the story of the loaves and fishes and how it has motivated her politics.
“Like the disciples of Jesus, we cannot look away, we cannot tell those in need to fend for themselves and live with ourselves,” she said. “‘You feed them,’ [Jesus] said, feed them, rescue them, heal them, love them.”