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Hillary's God By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 28, 2008

God and Hillary Clinton
By Paul Kengor
Harper Collins, 2007

Contrary to plans, Hillary Clinton will not be coronated this week as her party’s presidential nominee.  But she will almost certainly remain an active star in America’s political constellation for many more years.  Even if she never again seeks the presidency, the trajectory that took her from suburban Goldwater girl, to radical Yale law student, to marriage to Bill Clinton and Arkansas politics, to the White House as First Lady, to the U.S. Senate, and to her near miss campaign as the first plausible female presidential candidate, all make her possibly the most significant woman in American political history.

According to Paul Kengor’s God and Hillary Clinton, religion was central to the creation of Hillary Clinton as a liberal activist and ambitious Democratic politician.  Specifically it was her Social Gospel brand of Methodism that shaped her youth and snatched her away from her family’s Republican politics.  Hillary’s faith is rarely reported.  The usual silence about Hillary’s religion contrasts vividly with the intense coverage of her fellow United Methodist, George W. Bush.  Although President Bush’s lifelong church life has been rooted in Mainline Protestantism, his born again experience has fueled the left-wing caricature of him as a Texas fundamentalist and end-times enthusiast. 

Bush came by Methodism through his marriage to Laura.  But Hillary’s is lifelong and has been deeply formative.  Although it’s not clear where or whether she attends church since becoming a New York senator, her regular worship, accompanied by her Baptist husband, at very liberal Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. was a high profile feature of their White House years.  Foundry’s then pastor, J. Philip Wogaman, an abortion rights and same-sex marriage advocate who doubted Christian orthodoxies about Jesus Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection, very publicly became Bill Clinton’s spiritual counselor post Monica Lewinsky.

Hillary has recounted that her family’s roots date back to the Methodist revivals of 18th-century Britain.  Her girlhood home was several blocks from First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, outside Chicago.  Hillary’s mother taught Sunday School there, and Hillary was one of hundreds of children in the 1950’s who joined in that congregation’s stream of Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, potluck dinners, plays, athletic events, Christmas and Easter pageants.   For Hillary, the church was a “second home.”

Later Hillary would recount that First Methodist Church in Park Ridge was a “center for preaching and practicing the social gospel, so important to our Methodist traditions.”  Those “traditions” were mostly rooted in the early 20th century, when theological liberalism captured most of Methodism’s seminaries.  By the 1950’s probably most Methodist clergy, at least in the north, were theologically liberal Social Gospel advocates, emphasizing political and humanitarian reform as priorities over personal salvation and orthodox theology.

Freshly espousing that Social Gospel directly to the teen-age Hillary was the Rev. Don Jones, a new graduate from Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey, whose first job was youth minister at First Methodist Church in Park Ridge.  The flashy young minister, darting about in his red convertible, introduced Hillary and the other youth to his weekly Thursday night “University of Life.”  Starting in 1961, he literally brought the 1960’s to Hillary and her church, in Kengor’s words, teaching about “existentialism, abstract art, beat poetry, and even the radical politics of the counter-culture.”  He showed them art house films, shared Bob Dylan music, hosted a debate with an atheist, and discussed teen age sexuality.

Jones took Hillary and her white bread friends to Chicago’s Southside to meet young black youth, at one point asking the group of blacks and whites to discuss Picasso’s Guernica, a portrayal of savagery by pro-Franco forces during the Civil War.  Later, in 1962, Jones took the church youth to hear Martin Luther King preach “Sleeping Through the Revolution,” which spoke directly to the insulated teenagers of Hillary’s middle class congregation.  The youth pastor introduced each of his young charges to the civil rights leader.

More radically, Jones took the church youth to meet community organizer and religious agnostic Saul Alinsky, who skirted with allegations of communism, and portrayed himself as the “vanguard” of the “revolutionary force.”  Hillary herself would remember Alinsky as a “seducer” of young minds.  Jones also ferried the young Hillary to a migrant camp for Hispanic laborers, where the church youth delivered food and babysat the laborers’ children.  Impressed by the mind of the “straitlaced Methodist,” Jones directed Hillary to read Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.   Older more conservative church members resented Jones’ liberalism and flamboyance, and after 4 years he was forced to move on.  But he had left his indelible mark on the now 17 year old Hillary.

Hillary attended Wellesley’s women’s college in Boston, where she attended a Methodist church and maintained ties to the Rev. Jones, who remained a mentor, and who directed her towards Motive, a radical Methodist youth magazine.  Founded in the 1940’s, the periodical had been pacifist during World War II and went from liberal to far left in the 1960’s, damning America’s “economic imperialism” and interventionist foreign policy.   Thirty years later, as First Lady, Hillary would boast that she still owned every copy of Motive that she had received.  And she cited a particular article against the Vietnam War by Carl Oglesby, a Methodist pacifist and eventual president of the Students for a Democratic Society, as especially influential on her.  “What would be so wrong about a Vietnam run by Ho Chi Minh, a Cuba by Castro,” Oglesby wondered.

Motive eventually got so extreme that even liberal Methodist officials felt obliged to pull the plug.  One issue in 1971 urged of Miss America:  “Take her off the stage and f—k her.”  Another issue pictured a female college student with LSD on her tongue.  Evidently, Hillary gratefully subscribed until the very end.  In law school at Yale, Hillary’s interest in the church seems to have faded.  She lived with and then married her Baptist boyfriend from Arkansas, whose rise in politics took them to Little Rock.  There Hillary joined the liberal and upper middle class First United Methodist Church.

Hillary seemed to return to her Methodism with gusto.  As First Lady of Arkansas, she gave a series of speeches explaining her Methodist faith and admiration for Methodist founder John Wesley.  She also served as legal counsel for the denomination’s Arkansas Conference.  After coming to Washington, D.C. as First Lady, she boasted of owning the United Methodist Book of Resolutions, the compendium of the denomination’s dozens of official, left-leaning stances on the environment, military defense, the economy and foreign policy.   Addressing her denomination’s governing General Conference in 1996, she hailed United Methodism’s “Social Principles” as a “prod for my future actions.”  And she commended the Methodist bishops’ “children’s initiative,” which echoed the Children’s Defense Fund’s insistence on a greater welfare state.  Kengor does not mention it in his book, but Hillary concluded her convention peroration by declaring, “throw open the doors of our churches!” repeating that year’s slogan for Methodist gay activists, and exciting shrill whoops from many in the audience who understood.   

Although most church-going Methodists remain largely conservative, Hillary has been a faithful disciple of the denomination’s 20th-century liberalism, which has included pacifism, great faith in the United Nations, demands for an ever larger welfare state, the diminution of national borders, liberalized immigration policies, abortion rights, gun bans, and abolition of capital punishment.  Since Bill Clinton’s rise to power in a southern state, Hillary has amended her public views on many of these topics.  And as senator from New York, she has long since disavowed her early hostility to Israel, which she shared with United Methodist elites.

But Hillary is still resolutely a product of liberal Methodism, if slightly less confident in the Social Gospel’s claim that good intentions and activism can banish nearly all injustice.  Paul Kengor’s God and Hillary Clinton is a sharply revealing account of how Hillary came to be Hillary.  And as with George W. Bush, religion and Methodism are at the center of that story.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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