God Is a Centrist Democrat

Hillary Clinton moves self, whole party into the religious middle

Time will tell if she makes a habit of running for president by using the language of religious Republicans, or if her true base will stand for it.

The Hillary gig no one will talk about

It would appear Senator Clinton had picked the perfect venue to start getting religious on the public stage. The January 19 fundraiser for the Boston-based National Ten Point Leadership Foundation had the nominal backing of such leading Massachusetts Democrats as Boston mayor Tom Menino, as well as U.S. senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. More importantly, the 500-strong crowd included many of the city's leading black ministers, who'd likely welcome the sight of the preeminent Democrat dishing out the language of God.

But if you think this mixing of politics and religiosity comes free of charge, think again. The affair's host was Reverend Eugene Rivers III, the spiritual leader of the Pentecostal Azusa Christian Community and a prominent black minister willing to do business with the Bush White House. On January 25, he was among a coterie of clergy who met with President Bush in Washington. His Ten Point foundation has benefited from federal funding thanks to the administration's faith-based program. And Rivers has appeared in documents issued by the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives pushing one of its most controversial elements—that faith-based agencies be allowed to ignore state and local anti-discrimination laws but still receive federal money.

And then there's his outspoken stance against same-sex marriage. Last year, in the battle for civil-marriage rights for gay couples in Massachusetts, Rivers aligned himself with the most extreme opponents. He showed up at forums hosted by the anti-gay Family Research Council. He lent his celebrity to a radio ad paid for by Your Catholic Voice that declared: "Same-sex unions are really about 'special rights' for a special interest group."

Just a week before he shared the spotlight with Senator Clinton in Boston, he sounded a similar theme at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, arguing in a January 11 address that the words "civil rights" have been co-opted by those who support full equality for gay couples. Then Rivers revealed his true conservative colors:

"Frequently, same-sex couples wanting to marry are white lesbians who seek the accoutrements of family life and the proverbial white picket fence," he told the crowd. "From their positions of socioeconomic privilege, they insist that their desires must be viewed as rights instead of preferences."

The reverend's views won't endear him to Senator Clinton's more liberal supporters. But it's hard to tell if she's suffering any political fallout for glad-handing with him. Sean Cahill, of the Manhattan-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute, wrote a January 25 letter to the Boston Globe, calling Clinton's cameo in the city "disturbing." He wrote, "Rivers is a demagogue with a history of trying to pit gay people and people of color against one another."

But Cahill, who's now on leave from his job, stands alone among most pro-gay-marriage activists in New York. No one at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force responded to requests for comment on the Boston event—even though its "Religious Leadership Roundtable" issued a January 19 statement condemning Rivers's Michigan speech as "homophobic." Other gay rights leaders aware of the event didn't return phone calls or declined to comment.

In Boston, meanwhile, gay rights activists have been left scratching their heads. Gary Daffin, who heads the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, likens the reverend to the notorious Alan Keyes. "He's saying the same things that come out of the mouths of the religious right," Daffin says, "so Democrats should stay 100 miles away from him."

Another well-heeled Democratic operative agrees: "I don't think Hillary would've shown up with someone like that in New York."

Clinton's aides say there's no hidden message in the senator's Boston appearance. According to her spokesperson Philippe Reines, she didn't know of Rivers's previous comments on same-sex marriage until right before she delivered her speech that night. Her participation in the event was in no way an affirmation of those views, he says. She opposes same-sex marriage, but not quite with that much vitriol; last year, she voted against a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex couples from civil marriage, and she has long supported civil unions.

Reines says her trip to Boston was meant to show support for Rivers's faith-based organization—which she's done before. The Clintons have embraced the minister's Ten Point foundation since a 1997 White House meeting over teen violence.

"The senator has been familiar with this group for years," Reines says.

Rivers, for his part, deftly dodges the critics. Asked about the residual flap over Clinton sharing a stage with him, he tells the Voice, in an e-mail, "One would think that our friends in the gay and lesbian community would be delighted to know that Senator Clinton was committed to reducing senseless violence and death among our youths across urban America."

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