God Is a Centrist Democrat

Hillary Clinton moves self, whole party into the religious middle

For now, the factions you'd expect to question that approach are staying out of the debate. MoveOn, the progressive organization whose political action committee claimed to have essentially bought and paid for the Democratic Party in 2004, doesn't have much to say on the topic. "I'm mostly focused on 2006," wrote Eli Pariser, MoveOn PAC's executive director, in an e-mail. The press secretary for DNC chairman Howard Dean, whose own candidacy was heavily supported by MoveOn before he dropped out, didn't call back.

That leaves thinkers like Marshall Wittmann, of the super-centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He applauds Clinton, saying the party must win back the group he calls "progressive traditionalists"—middle- and lower-income voters who identify with the party on economic issues but have reservations on social and moral ones. "The Democratic Party will only become the majority again if it's able to construct a large coalition that includes those turned off because of cultural views," Wittmann says.

Clinton, of all Democrats, has no chance of winning over the hardcore religious right. Such conservatives, says University of Akron professor John Green, who specializes in religion and politics, "really don't like her. They associate her with her husband and see her as a raving liberal."

So her real target is middle-of-the-road churchgoers who take faith seriously enough to leave the Democrats because of absolutist stances on abortion rights, gay rights, and church-state separation. Yet they don't fit with the Republicans' domestic policies. "It's entirely possible for Clinton to do well with this group if she can find a moderate approach and a religious language," Green says.

This group includes people like pro-life Catholics, Latino evangelicals, and black Protestants—people, in effect, like Reverend Rivers and his audience in Boston.

Here's a little-understood truism about Senator Clinton: She feels right at home with the churchgoing crowd. A lifelong and devout Methodist, she spent her teen years active in the church's youth movement. In 1993, as the newly crowned first lady, she became the symbol of an emerging religious liberalism when she gave a speech in Austin, Texas, that called for "a new politics of meaning."

"She used those words," recalls Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun. Lerner used to meet with Hillary at the Clinton White House until, in his words, "the liberal media and the religious right demolished her for it."

Now the senator is reclaiming her moral roots. She hasn't found religion in order to make a presidential run—it's more like she's finally coming clean. Says Lerner, "There's a new openness among Democrats to speak religion, and Hillary has gone back to being who she really is."

Clinton's aides put it another way. "The times may have changed, but Hillary Clinton's views have not," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson. Everything she's voiced recently, he points out, she's voiced before.

Take abortion. In 1999, then first lady Clinton told another pro-choice crowd: "It's essential that as Americans we look for that common ground that we can all stand upon." Similarly, two years earlier, she expressed hope for dialogue with abortion opponents—"people of faith who do not share extremism as their rallying cry." As for the phrase "safe, legal, and rare," the senator has used it to describe abortion going as far back as 1995.

The same can be said about her praise of faith-based initiatives. During the Clinton presidency, she and her husband encouraged church-affiliate groups to provide social services—so long as they stayed within constitutional bounds. In 2001, the senator articulated that vision again. She told another religious crowd:

Government works in partnership with religious institutions . . . to promote public purposes—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless. Faith inspires those good works, to be sure. But tax dollars are properly used to channel the energies of the faithful in a direction that helps our society as a whole.

Almost necessarily, Clinton's decision to be up front now about her spirituality comes down to a political judgment—one that has served her well so far. There's evidence her January 24 abortion speech resonated with pro-life activists. The Christian Defense Coalition penned a February 8 open letter to Clinton singling out her sympathetic language and applauding her frankness. Referring to her call for common ground, the letter states, "It is truly our hope that you were sincere in your desire to reach out to people of faith and the pro-life community."

As for her faith-based speech in Boston, Reverend Rivers, for one, believes that Clinton scored high marks with religious voters. As he tells the Voice via e-mail, "To the extent religious voters are paying attention to her, they hear her speak in terms with which she is quite comfortable and that they readily accept. I think she connected very well with religious voters."

Not even Clinton's willingness to share a stage with the polarizing minister seems damaging. For one thing, Rivers epitomizes the views of the 23 million-strong black church community, which is culturally conservative on issues like gay marriage and abortion. For another, he actually represents the mainstream view, with 60 percent of the country opposing same-sex marriage.

Clinton watchers can expect more lurches to the right, and more talk of traditional values. "Senator Clinton has more leeway than most Democrats to appeal to those social conservatives because she has so much strength among the left within the party," Wittmann says. "She can do a Nixon-goes-to-China with greater ease than many Democrats."

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