Hillary Clinton and Progressive Civil Religion

June 3, 2016

She’s a Christian? Really?” That’s the most common response I get when I mention my current book project, a religious history of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Often the tone is one of curiosity, but sometimes there’s more than a touch of sarcasm.

Indeed, polls demonstrate that Clinton has long been perceived as one of the least religious of leading political contenders. This has been somewhat puzzling to me. Although Clinton confesses to a certain reticence about her faith (“advertising” her faith doesn’t come naturally to her, since her Methodist tradition values walking the walk over talking the talk), she has in fact testified on numerous occasions to the centrality of her faith, not only in her personal life, but also to her political career. (Her first book, It Takes a Village, contains an entire chapter on her faith, and in her most recent book, Hard Choices, she credits her faith with prompting her to enter electoral politics, and later to leave the Senate and accept President-Elect Obama’s invitation to become Secretary of State.)

Why, then, does her religiosity fail to register with so many Americans?

As an historian of American religion, I’d like to suggest that context is important here. Her religious dialect, one shaped by the progressive Christianity of the 1960s, is not easily translated into the language of the Religious Right, the dominant language of faith and politics in America today.

As a young girl growing up in the 1950s, Hillary attended the Methodist Church in her upscale suburban community of Park Ridge, IL. Both of her parents were devout Methodists, but they understood their faith in different ways.

Her father, a gruff and emotionally distant figure in Hillary’s life, was a “self-made” businessman who privileged individualism and self-reliance. His politics followed suit; he was a stalwart Republican and ardent anti-communist.

Her mother, however, embraced a social justice tradition that was also deeply rooted in American Methodism. She was not alone; at Park Ridge Methodist Church, the women of the church lived out their faith by raising money for global mission work, assisting local migrant workers, and educating themselves about racial and economic injustice. For these women, sacrificial pursuit of the common good was central to their understanding of their faith.

Hillary was caught between these two visions of civil religion. It was during her teenage years that she came to embrace her mother’s social vision. The primary catalyst for this arrived in Park Ridge in a sporty red convertible. Don Jones, her church’s new youth pastor, sought to awaken the young people in his charge from their privileged complacency. He took them to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in Chicago, and he had them meet with black and Hispanic youth in the city, opening their eyes to a world very different from their own.

Jones’s radical faith eventually proved too much for the more traditionally-minded leadership of the Park Ridge church (though the women in the church viewed him more favorably), and he only stayed two years. But he had a profound influence on Hillary, and remained her close friend and spiritual mentor until his death in 2009.

Clinton credits Jones’ influence with leading her to embrace a faith more in line with her mother’s than her father’s, and it was not long before her politics followed suit. (Hillary never entirely abandoned her father’s sensibilities, however—the former Goldwater girl has described herself as having a “mind of a conservative and heart of a liberal.”)

As she left home to begin college at Wellesley, Hillary’s faith continued to be shaped by this progressive Methodist tradition. Upon her high school graduation she received a gift subscription of motive magazine from her church. The magazine of the Methodist Student Movement, motive was a leading voice of progressive Christianity during the critical decade of the 1960, and Hillary read each issue religiously. She credits the magazine as one of the key factors in leading her to abandon her Republicanism and in favor of a Democratic vision of politics.

The pages of motive reveal the contours of a progressive Christianity that seemed, amidst the turmoil of the 1960s, to represent the future of American Christianity.

It was a faith that sought to move beyond liberalism and fundamentalism. Drawing on Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, and Tillich, writers in motive sought a new articulation of the Christian faith suited to the changing world in which they lived.

It was a faith shaped in the crucible of the Civil Rights movement. Dozens of articles depicting Civil Rights as a moral and spiritual cause appeared in the pages of motive.

It was also a faith rooted in a tradition of global Christianity. This global orientation led writers to reject Cold War politics and instead connect the American Civil Rights movement to struggles for liberation across the developing world. Calling on the church to act against oppression at home and abroad, they shared stories out of Vietnam, South Africa, and Latin America that belied the myth of America as a “Christian nation,” and offered a prophetic critique of American hegemony and global capitalism.

By the end of the 1960s, however, this tradition of progressive Christianity was coming undone. Similar in some ways to the dissolution of the New Left, the Student Christian Movement unraveled in the early 1970s with astonishing speed. Wracked by institutional and ideological conflict (particularly concerning the relationship of the sacred to the secular, as well as around issues of sexuality), progressive Christianity was in disarray.

By the mid-1970s, evangelical Christianity emerged as the dominant articulation of American civil religion. On issues of capitalism, anti-communism and other foreign policy issues, the role of government, the virtues of patriotism and the very idea of “Christian America,” feminism, and in some cases, on the merits of the civil right movement, evangelicals offered starkly contrasting views of a Christian approach to politics. As abortion became an increasingly contested and politically polarizing issue, it drove a further wedge between many progressive Christians and conservative evangelicals.

Hillary’s own faith didn’t remain frozen in the 1960s, nor can all of her actions been understood as the unalloyed expression of her religious convictions. She has gone through periods of doubt and spiritual exploration over the course of her life. But progressive Methodism has remained at the heart of her spiritual identity, and if one has ears to hear, it remains at the center of many of her political commitments today.

What difference does it make if Hillary Clinton is a Christian?

Electorally, overall favorability ratings tend to be linked to a candidate’s perceived religiosity, so it’s probably in her campaign’s interest to fight misconceptions about her lack of religiosity. But as history demonstrates, Christian belief can inspire widely varying political and social views. As Jeff Taylor pointed out in his thoughtful post on iAt, Christians would do well to keep in mind that the faith of a candidate may not be the most important factor in decided whether or not to vote for them.

And yet, at a time when younger generations of American Christians are increasingly abandoning the politics of Religious Right, and when a large number of conservative, church-going evangelicals find themselves unable to support the likely Republican nominee, the time may be ripe for broadening our understanding of the variety of ways that Christianity informs conceptions of the social good and shapes the landscape of American electoral politics.

About the Author
  • Kristin Du Mez is Professor of History at Calvin College. She has written on religion, politics, and gender for The Washington Post and Religion & Politics, and is author of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (OUP 2015).

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  1. Kristin,
    Thank you for your article. I am glad there are some CRC people who regard Hillary Clinton in terms of who she is. I wish that would happen about Barak Obama. People in Sioux Center still say he is a Muslim. WOW that hits me in the stomach. I too, as Hilary, was a pro-Goldwater person but was indeed influenced by the civil rights movement and became a Democrat. Keep up your work and influence people.

  2. Kristin,

    With due respect, I imagine the reason that most people don’t recognize her as “Christian” is that they instinctively intuit that the “progressive Christianity” that was 1960’s Methodism paved the way for the militantly secular, and largely anti-Christian liberalism that dominates the Democratic Party today. This thesis–that today’s modern secular liberalism is yesterday’s progressive Christianity–is the core of Joseph Bottum’s argument in his 2014 book An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Moreover, I think it likely that whatever natural reticence that Hillary may have as to self-identifying as Christian, it isn’t at all clear how that could help her in her bid to win her party’s nomination, as the Party seems largely hostile to anything having to do with Traditional Ways of Thinking–especially ways that are tinged with Christianity.

    1. Yes, this is part of the story as well, and one I’m working to develop in the book. Seeds of secularism can be found in this progressive tradition. But also a genuine faith tradition. As a religious historian, and as a Christian, this is the most interesting part of the story as far as I’m concerned. Hillary’s own faith is somewhat secondary.

  3. Hillary Clinton is an outspoken advocate for abortion. She denies or ignores the Biblical assertion that an unborn baby is human: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) The Bible mentions sin only in connection with people; therefore, the Bible teaches that a baby is human from the moment of conception. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her religious background, Hillary does not see unborn babies as God does, made in His image and entitled to the life He gives them. Therefore, Christians who seek “… to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8) must oppose her on that issue.

  4. I have read several articles on the internet regarding Hillary Clinton’s religion.

    One thing is clear. Hillary’s religious views are constantly evolving and she is unstable in all her ways.

    James 1:8 “Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”

    Malachi 3:6 “”I am the LORD, and I do not change.”

    A Christian in Name Only is someone who professes to be a Christian in public, but doesn’t know, understand or follow the teachings of Christianity. Not knowing the teachings and beliefs of Christianity, the Christian in Name Only violates them continually and is in all likelihood NOT a Christian.

    Though Hillary and the Democrats talk of religion, Hillary Clinton is a Christian in Name Only.

    Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Paul wrote the following:

    1 Corinthians 5:11 “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who CLAIMS TO BE A BROTHER OR SISTER but is sexually immoral or GREEDY, an idolater or SLANDERER, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

    Paul was referring to Christians in the church who CLAIMED to be Christians, but who were NOT true Christians.

    Certainly Christians should talk to non-believers, but when it comes to hypocrites in the Christian church, they are to be rebuked because their comments go against the against the Word of God in the Bible, and they should never be accepted.

    We all must judge to some extent or we could not vote or serve on a jury.

    In John 7:24 we are told that Jesus said “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

    Both atheists and Christians often say that the Bible says that we are never supposed to judge others. That’s incorrect.

    The verse below quoting Jesus one of the ones they are talking about:

    Luke 6:37 (King James Version) “judge not, and ye shall not be judged”.

    Jesus was warning people against judging and CONDEMNING as a judge in a courtroom would. He’s calling us to not condemn people, to not pass final judgment and declare them irretrievably guilty.

    Jesus also said as reported in John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

    It is not possible to live without being “judgmental” of another person’s behavior or words.

    When listening to a witness in a courtroom, we judge whether the truth is being told. When we listen to a debate, we judge. A policeman couldn’t do his job if he didn’t judge. But we do not condemn the witness or debater and the policeman doesn’t sentence the person he arrests.

    The English verb “judge” in the ancient Greek the New Testament was written in has comes in the form of 3 different words and has 3 different meanings.

    The word “krino” meant to judge as a courtroom judge would and condemn another person.

    The word “anakrino” meant to judge by mentally questioning. No punishment or condemnation is implied.

    The word “diakrino” meant to discern, to understand. No punishment or condemnation is implied.

    So long as you don’t judge another and condemn him/her by wishing them ill, go ahead and judge what they do or say not angrily, but evaluate it, understand it, accept it or reject it.

    For example, there is a big difference between judging another person’s behavior and judging the eternal state of his soul. The latter judgment belongs only to God.

    Romans 3: 23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

    If you will consult a Strong’s Concordance in book form, or search it on the internet, you will see that the word “judge” in the New Testament that here are 3 words for judge; krino, anakrino and diakrino. Consult “Vines Dictionary of Biblical Words” in the book or on the internet and you will find the same thing.

  5. I have been reading as much as I can find, looking for the one statement that confirms salvation, I have not found it. I am continuing to research. I have seen the so called social gospel, I have seen that our beliefs must change, I have seen works righteousness. I have seen she is a Methodist; and that Church advocates a one world view. I have seen the sacrifice of the unborn upon the alter of women’s rights. what I; as of yet; have not found is a confession of saving faith; That is “Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.” I have found no quote where she has claimed “Saved by the finished works of Jesus Christ,’ 1 Cor. 15: 1-4. I have found; to this point; no reference to a belief in Jesus Christ her the savior. Yet what I have found is a dedication to Saul Alinsky, who dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Satan in 1971. Many people can save Christian but few rely on the Blood of Jesus Christ to have purchased it. I have found we must be tolerant of other faiths and gospels which the word says they are to be “Accursed.” I question her faith but I have seen her works.