Political Hay

There’s Method to Hillary’s Methodism

Reflections on her canonization last weekend.

By 5.2.14

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While much of the world had its eyes on Rome where Pope Francis canonized Popes John XXIII and John Paul II last weekend, a group of United Methodist women in Louisville did something of the same for Hillary Clinton.

The one-time First Lady told an Apr. 26 assembly of the United Methodist Women that being with them was like a “homecoming.” That’s about right. The group is a full-fledged member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and campaigns for many of the issues in Clinton’s wheelhouse.

But policy wasn’t on Mrs. Clinton’s mind that morning; not yet. She told the Women that the sight of her father on his knees in prayer every night left a “very big impression” on the Park Ridge, Ill. native.

Although she rarely speaks publicly about her faith, Mrs. Clinton’s Methodist roots run deep. John and Charles Wesley, the forerunners of Methodism, converted her ancestors in Wales. She reveled in the memory of her grandmother who often sung old hymns while braiding the young Clinton’s hair. All the while, Mrs. Clinton said she struggled to “reconcile my father’s insistence on self-reliance and independence, and my mother’s concerns about social justice and compassion.”

Paul Kengor, author of God and Hillary Clinton, told me Clinton’s hard choice was more about politics than faith. “The one who really changed Hillary and brought her to the religious left was not her father or mother, but her youth pastor.” Pastor Don Jones arranged trips for the young suburban Methodists to visit Chicago’s inner city churches. These experiences encouraged Mrs. Clinton to put her “faith into action.”

Clinton said she was inspired by John Wesley’s “famous” words: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

The Methodist faith “gave us the great gift of personal salvation but the great obligation of social gospel,” Clinton beamed. The group, one largely in decline with a membership of mostly older ladies, roared in support.

For someone likely to seek the highest office in the land, Mrs. Clinton might want to read up on the founder of her own church. There is no evidence John Wesley ever uttered those “famous” words. What’s more, Wesley didn’t much care for the “social gospel” Clinton and her Methodist women preach.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley wrote in his 2012 book Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century that Wesley was “studiously nonpolitical and hoped [his] clergy would follow likewise.” The 18th century revivalist, Tooley argued in an April 24 post for a Wesleyan blog, “offered no systematic application of faith to statecraft.” Wesley endorsed a “social witness that begins with human and societal redemption,” therefore most problems affecting society are “spiritual rather than material.”

Still, Clinton thinks along a different Methodist track. She seemed to dispense with Wesley’s emphasis on the spiritual when she told her fellow Methodist women that she has “always been taken by what happens before” the miracle of the feeding the multitude.

“In the story, when the hour grows late and the crowd grows hungry, the disciples come to Jesus and suggest they send away the people to find food, to fend for themselves, but Jesus said ‘No, you feed them.’” Mrs. Clinton cites this as a lesson “about the responsibility we all share to step up and serve the community, especially to help those with the greatest need and the fewest resources.”

Perhaps Mrs. Clinton mistook the “you” in Jesus’ directive for “government.” She told the crowd that “if we ensure equal pay for equal work, if we raise the minimum wage, if we give parents flexibility on the job and paid family leave,” we could “empower women” and feed today’s multitudes.

But Jesus didn’t lament that the Romans weren’t doing enough to feed the hungry or urge his disciples to lobby for higher pay. Jesus’ directive suggests a different moral example, one that Catholics and Protestants alike have long followed: don’t go to Washington to serve the needy in Chicago. Those at the most local level of authority ought to have a go at it first. It takes a family, not a village. Here, Tooley offers a useful reminder: “Wesley and his followers of the first 150 years or so did not deploy the institutional church for routine engagement in political specifics. Instead they produced Christians and citizens who understood they operated under God in a wider social accountability.”

Clinton closed her talk with a hint at what might motivate her to run in 2016: “Even when we are tired and all we want to do is go away by ourselves to a secluded place and rest awhile,” Clinton said, “even then — especially then — let’s make it happen.”

But if her “social gospel” is any preview of what a Clinton presidency might look like, let’s hope it doesn’t have a prayer.

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About the Author

Nicholas G. Hahn III is editor of RealClearReligion.org. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.