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.”
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.”
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.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2005