God Is a Centrist Democrat

Hillary Clinton moves self, whole party into the religious middle

If it's true that the Democratic Party is about to get religion, then Hillary Clinton is first at the altar. Much has been made of Clinton's newly softened image—the way she tore down her old liberal icon and got spiritual over abortion, for instance. She told an Albany crowd on January 24 that abortion represents "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," and singled out "religious and moral values" as an antidote to teenage sex. Never mind the New York junior senator's continued advice that pro-choice activists find "common ground" with their anti-abortion counterparts. Pundits chalked up the putative presidential candidate's remarks to a post-election Democratic shift to the center. After all, the only way to win national office anymore is to move to the middle, and these days that means getting serious about God and guns.

And sure enough, there she was, getting cozy with Republican maverick John McCain on NBC's Meet the Press last week, as he said she'd make "a good president." She played commander in chief, going out of her way to disagree with the hard-left wing of her own party by insisting that the troops must stay in Iraq to keep the insurgents at bay.

Yet for all the notice of Clinton's centrist tone and morality-speak on the national stage, her New York constituents largely missed the senator's real debut as a God-fearing Middle American. It came in a January 19 speech in Boston that made headlines there, with Clinton appearing in a Globe photograph alongside the host, Reverend Eugene Rivers III, one of the state's most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage.

Clinton had traveled there to attend a benefit for Rivers's youth-outreach program, known as the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, which promotes faith-based solutions to gang violence and urban crime. At the event, attended by many of the city's prominent black ministers, the senator celebrated the foundation's street ministry to at-risk kids. But she also used the opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to a key issue in the culture wars, the role of faith in addressing social ills like poverty and hunger. Listen to her praise faith-based initiatives:

"There is a lot that needs to be done, and there is an unnecessary debate in our country about how to do it. It does not matter whether it is inspired by faith, inspired by obligation, inspired by family, or inspired by threat of a federal indictment. The work is what is important. . . . And there is no contradiction between faith based, community based, faith inspired, government inspired—we are all in this together, and we need to provide support for the ongoing work."

Clinton didn't stop with that. She invoked God's name a half-dozen times—thanking God for the Ten Point's faithful soldiers, commending those who "see God at work in the lives of even the most hopeless and left-behind of our children." And she made plain her religious credentials:

"People often ask me whether I'm a praying person, and I say I was lucky enough to be raised in a praying family, and learned to say my prayers as a very young child, and remembered seeing my late father by the side of his bed until his very last days saying his prayers. So I was fortunate. But I also say that had I not been a praying person, that after I'd been in the White House for a few months, I would have become a praying person."

Her strategy in trying to sound like the second coming of John Wesley is clear. "She's trying to re-create her Northeast liberal image and move to the center," says Saint Louis University political science professor Kenneth Warren. A longtime Democratic pollster, he says big-ticket social items have clearly hurt the party. "The only way to win the presidency in 2008 is to be perceived as more moderate and sympathetic on moral values."

Clinton may have been the first leading Democrat to start talking religion in public after the Bush victory. But her recent speeches are part of a growing conversation within the party on how to rebuild after the disastrous 2004 election. Democrats recognize a need to close the God gap among religious voters who've come to see the Republicans as their only possible pick. The Democrats' answer? Soften the party's secular image on divisive cultural issues, such as abortion.

In recent weeks Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical Christian preacher and editor of Sojourners magazine, has twice visited Democrats on Capitol Hill. In February, he reportedly instructed Senate press secretaries on how to "discuss the budget in terms of moral values." He believes Democrats need to change the focus from culturally divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage to, say, war and poverty. Those are also religious issues.

"If you're motivated by moral values, then let it shine through," Wallis says. "This is what I've been telling Democrats."

The party may have no choice. Steven Grossman, who headed the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton years and who attended Hillary's Boston speech, says the Democrats need to appeal to a broader constituency. He says that will be new chairman Howard Dean's biggest challenge and points out that John Kerry lost big among Hispanic voters last year because those communities are rooted in faith and values. "Hillary is saying we need to find ways to make common ground with larger numbers of Americans," Grossman says. "I think she's challenging the Democratic Party to broaden its vision and its message, and I support it."

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