The Methodism of Hillary Clinton

It’s been a while since I’ve read any speculation on Hillary Clinton’s religious background and views, which was once a reasonably hot topic in some corners of the chattering classes. But the Economist‘s religious writer Erasmus takes up the subject via the provocative angle of comparing Clinton to two other world leaders heavily influenced by a Methodist upbringing: Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.

Although Mrs Clinton is not most people’s idea of a religion-inspired politician, she displays her Methodist origins more openly than either Lady Thatcher or Mr Mandela. As a girl she helped clean the altar in the local church, but her faith also took her to more challenging places: she used to accompany a youth pastor on visits to inner-city communities in Chicago. During her husband’s presidency she brought her fractured family to worship at a Methodist church, and took part in a cross-party prayer group. Although she is at odds with the United Methodists over gay marriage, her Middle Western roots mean that she is unlikely ever to show an east-coast liberal’s disdain for religion.

In truth, in the White House the Clintons did seem to reflect their religious upbringings. I used to say that in listening to President Clinton in his most oratorical moments, you could almost smell the fried chicken dinner-on-the-grounds the young man from Arkansas undoubtedly anticipated while listening to long Baptist sermons on countless Sunday mornings. Bill Clinton also exemplified, sometimes ironically, the traditional Baptist view on the power of redemption to overcome hardened sin. And he also represented a lot of Southern Baptists (including the 39th President of the United States) who were estranged from their denomination’s increasingly mandatory conservatism on a host of theological and political issues.

So when the Clintons went to church in Washington, it was generally to attend the Foundry United Methodist Church, a notably liberal, but entirely respectable, outpost of HRC’s faith (the UMC is the leading mainline Methodist denomination, though paralleled by the African-American AME demonimation, and rivaled by a host of conservative breakaway groups).

I’m hardly an expert on Methodism, but as I understand it, the Wesleyan tradition (heavily influenced by German pietism but also by Methodism’s original Church of England context, which the Wesleys themselves never abandoned) emphasizes inner spiritual growth balanced by a commitment to social reform (understood by some as service to the poor, by others as moral instruction to the nations), and an unshakable belief in the potential for the sanctification of human beings by quiet incremental steps. It’s an exemplary background for socially and politically active people from the middle class, whether liberal or conservative.

Erasmus is correct that HRC’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage has outstripped that of the United Methodist Church, perhaps the only mainline denomination where opposition to ordination of LGBT clergy or acknowledgment of same-sex unions has actually increased rather than decreased in very recent years. But there are plenty of Methodists–especially outside the South–who are with her in that respect. Looking beyond any one issue, though, Methodism connotes a sort of earnest desire to participate in the divine redemption of a sinful world that strikes me as entirely compatible with contemporary liberalism. I’d also add that Methodism’s roots as a “non-conforming” offshoot of a state church tends to make Methodists inherently sympathetic to church-state separation. So I don’t really see HRC’s religion, whether it’s a prominent or occluded part of her public persona, being a problem for her among progressives.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.