I’m typically not prone to conspiracy theories. Yet, I have reason to suspect that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be coordinating their campaign strategies. This is especially apparent in their strikingly similar bids to win the religious “values voters” who twice elected George W. Bush.
Consider the most recent overture: Over the weekend, Senator Obama went into a huge church in Greenville, South Carolina and called himself an “instrument of God,” one who is “confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on earth.” His message was notably Hillary-like, as Senator Clinton is fond of quoting Methodist founder John Wesley, who stated, “The world is my parish.” Both Senators Clinton and Obama see themselves as doing the Lord’s work; or, as Mrs. Clinton’s husband said during a political rally at a Newark church in 1996: “God’s work must be our own.”
The secular press, which goes berserk anytime it asks George W. Bush if he prays and he answers yes, is, naturally, not offended by these grandiose statements. Likewise, ACLU lawyers are not dashing to courthouses to strip the non-profit status of the Greenville church, nor any of the 27 New York churches that hosted political rallies for Mrs. Clinton in the two months prior to the 2000 vote.
Yet, even more instructive is this similarity between Senators Clinton and Obama: Outside the Greenville church, Obama told reporters. “I think it’s important, particularly for those of us in the Democratic Party, to not cede values and faith to any one party.” He criticized Republicans’ “particular brand of faith,” surely a reference to how Republican legislators cite Scripture to oppose gay marriage. Rather, noted Obama, evangelicals need to appreciate the “social justice” concerns embraced by Democratic politicians, such as fighting poverty.
This sounded a lot like Mrs. Clinton’s November 10, 2004 visit to Tufts University, immediately after religious voters made the decisive difference in re-electing President Bush. She called it a mistake for Democrats to have not engaged evangelicals on their own turf, thereby ceding the vote to Bush.
She singled out areas where she thought faith-backed Republican politicians were vulnerable, pointing to social justice: Mrs. Clinton said the Bible should be cited to win debates over poverty, akin to how Republicans referenced Scripture to resist the legalization of gay marriage. “No one can read the New Testament of our Bible without recognizing that Jesus had a lot more to say about how we treat the poor than most of the issues that were talked about in this election,” said Senator Clinton.
Obama agreed, and followed up with an important June 28, 2006 address to the Call to Renewal convention in Washington, where he made a heartfelt appeal on behalf of liberal Christians. He said there were certain issues that not only proved his personal Christianity but on which liberal Christian politicians could turn the tables on conservative Christian politicians—issues like supporting daycare facilities and the estate tax.
Such examples are commonly cited by liberal Christians. There is, however, a major flaw in these pleas. Consider:
Liberal and conservative Christians alike agree that Jesus wants them to help the poor. Yet, they can respectfully disagree over whether the estate tax or government-funded day care is what Jesus had in mind. Conservative Christians prefer to address poverty through individual outreach and faith-based organizations; citing Scripture, they believe that Jesus pushed for private means of assistance. For instance, the parable of the rich man getting into heaven calls not for a government program of forced wealth distribution but for the rich man to personally choose to share his wealth. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, favor public-sector solutions, many of which their conservative counterparts find ineffective.
In short, this is a legitimate disagreement over means toward an agreed upon end. Liberal Christian politicians can scream in frustration over why conservative Christians will not vote for them as they invoke social justice. Yet, the mistake is to conclude with certainty that Jesus Christ would prefer an upper-income marginal tax rate of 36 percent instead of 31 percent. Similarly, all Christians agree that Jesus wants them to be good stewards of the earth, but no liberal Christian can presume to know that the Prince of Peace would support drilling for oil in the Persian Gulf but not in Alaska.
That said, there is a point where liberal Christian politicians like Obama and Mrs. Clinton reach irreconcilable differences with conservative Christians: abortion. For pro-life Christians, a second-trimester abortion for the purpose of birth control is far more significant than whether one advocates an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $5.45.
As vocal pro-choicers, both Clinton and Obama are aware of their vulnerability in this area, to the point where Mrs. Clinton has hired a top party strategist to advise her on reaching out to pro-life evangelicals, and Obama has openly admitted that the accusation that he is not a “true Christian” because of his position on abortion—a charge leveled by his 2004 Senate opponent—“nagged” at him.
For now, however, the faith rhetoric by these two leading Democratic contenders—even when sincere—looks like a concerted strategy for 2008. It seems too similar to be a coincidence, and quite unlike anything we heard from Democrats in 2000 and 2004. Whether the strategy will work is another question.