Hillary Clinton will address the quadrennial General Assembly of United Methodist Women next month, brandishing her credentials as a lifelong Methodist. It’s not clear if she’s been active in a Methodist church since leaving the White House in 2001. For eight years she and her Baptist husband attended Washington’s Foundry Church, whose then pastor, a renowned liberal theologian, vigorously defended Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But undoubtedly the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State was deeply shaped by her Methodist upbringing in a Chicago suburb. A liberal youth minister was influential, as was a radical Methodist youth magazine she read devotedly as a teenager. As First Lady, she recounted having saved every issue, and cited as particularly formative a 1966 article by anti-war activist Carl Oglesby, which evidently helped shift her from a Barry Goldwater Republican to a 1960s progressive.
In the 1960s Methodism peaked as a Mainline Protestant force in America, its continuous 50-year membership loss starting in 1964. Clinton is the direct product of a particular liberal Protestant ethos, now faded, that was defined not by doctrinal commitments but Social Gospel political ambitions.
The Methodist women’s group, which understandably embraces her as an icon, has itself sharply deflated from its former glory. Forty years ago it had 1.36 million members and boasted it was America’s largest women’s organization. Although its website now claims 800,000, the church’s financial oversight agency reports it actually has just over half a million, having lost about 60 percent of its members. Very few young women belong, and Clinton, as she approaches 70, is probably about the average age, or the lower end.
I fondly recall my grandmother’s own years of involvement in United Methodist Women, which is divided into “circles,” and even decades ago was almost entirely comprised of “Greatest Generation” women who are now largely gone. Her group like thousands of others met monthly in members’ homes for spiritual reflection, socializing, freshly baked snacks, and plotting church fundraisers, like the annual church Christmas bazaar.
These circles of dedicated church women across the nation raised tens of millions of dollars across the years, making the New York-based United Methodist Women a very wealthy and powerful entity. Few local members realized the recipient of their generosity had become politically radicalized by the 1960s, helping to found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights in 1973, for example. The national women’s group funded and organized protests and lobbying for the far left in the 1970s and 1980s, often through its office at the United Nations, often gushing over, and funding, Third World Marxist revolutionary movements. Its assets once reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
After years of membership losses and deficit spending, the assets are now a fraction of their former size. United Methodist Women’s national leadership is still liberal if not quite as radical. A recent program report cites key issues as immigration legalization, climate activism, and stopping the Keystone Pipeline. They still belong to what is now called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Workshops at April’s assembly, where Clinton will speak, include fighting U.S. military bases in the Pacific, opposing fracking, and resisting Israel’s “colonial” expansion in Palestine.
“Secretary Clinton is a lifelong United Methodist and a longtime advocate for women, children and youth,” explained Harriett Jane Olson, chief of United Methodist Women.
“Her work reflects commitments United Methodist Women and our predecessor organizations have worked toward for 145 years.”
The United Methodist Women’s news release announcing Clinton’s impending appearance cited her speech to the United Methodist Church’s 1996 governing General Conference, which I attended. It was accompanied by some controversy, of course, as it was an election year. One delegate unsuccessfully urged that another Methodist woman and wife of a presidential candidate, Elizabeth Dole, also be invited. In her speech, Clinton appreciatively cited her Methodist upbringing, hailed the influence on her of the church’s Social Principles, and in barely veiled code words, urged the church to “throw open” its doors, the motto that year of gay church activists, who shouted their delight.
Clinton is the only First Lady to address Methodism’s governing convention or its women’s assembly. Laura Bush is another lifelong Methodist First Lady but largely was ignored by the church, while her husband’s policies of course were routinely denounced by church officials, one of whom urged his impeachment.
In November Clinton spoke in New York to an anniversary celebration for a Methodist missions center, now headed by the Methodist minister who co-officiated at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding and presided at the funeral for Hillary’s mother.
Whether Clinton’s renewed high profile embrace of Methodism signals future political plans or simply nostalgic appreciation is known only to her. But her political career undoubtedly has been the incarnation of Methodism’s contemporary political witness.