Is there more to Christianity than politics?

GodHillaryLast week Michael Luo of The New York Times had a fascinating piece about the public piety of Sen. Hillary Clinton. After decades of losing socially conservative religious voters, Democrats are noticeably reaching out to religious folks. It’s wise for media outlets to track and analyze the move.

Of course, journalists are at a bit of a disadvantage that may affect the quality of the pieces about the trend. For one, they seem to have totally bought into a simplistic two-party story of religion and politics in America. They say, well on the left you have mainstream religious folks who think Jesus wanted big government social welfare programs and on the right you have those evangelicals and fundies who say Jesus only cared about protecting unborn children and keeping marriage sacred.

This trend both shortchanges the larger story and serves the narrow interests of the two groups that get all the coverage. It serves the two groups because it helps push their very real special interests to the forefront of media coverage. But it shortchanges the larger stories because it completely misses those who don’t fit in either camp — the churches that are focused less on American politics and more on, say, the Sacraments, worship, eternal life, etc. It also neglects the very real similarities of the groups on left and right: they highlight moralism, relevance, and personal feeling and politicize the moral meaning of Christianity; they tend not to embrace ritual, churchliness, and tradition. And I’m not even going to get into how shortsighted the mainstream media view is of religious activism in politics. Depending on the agenda of the storywriter, the entire 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and decades of the 20th, are dropped as if they never occurred.

But let’s look at this Clinton story, which is written very well, as Luo’s pieces generally are, and covers a lot of ground:

Long before her beliefs would be tested in the most wrenching of ways as first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton taught an adult Sunday school class on the importance of forgiveness. It is a lesson, she says, that she has harked back to often.

“We all have things that oftentimes we’re upset about, or ashamed of, or feel guilty over, and so many people carry these enormous burdens around,” Mrs. Clinton said in a recent interview. “One of the great gifts of faith is to let it go.”

The themes of wrongs, forgiveness and reconciliation have played out repeatedly in Mrs. Clinton’s life, as she has endured the ordeal of her husband’s infidelity, engaged in countless political battles and shared a deep, mutual distrust with adversaries.

From the beginning, Luo emphasizes this theme of forgiveness, which is really exciting because it made me think that for once we wouldn’t be getting a story about social justice but real religious discussion.

But it never really pans out. I mean, it’s a long story and there’s plenty of room to talk about what forgiveness means to Clinton. I’m not sure if she’s not sharing or if the reporter isn’t disclosing it, but we never learn anything about the central role of forgiveness in Christian thought. The story makes it hard to discern the difference between what a therapist might tell you about “letting go” of resentment and what a devout Christian might say. And the opportunities to dig further are left unexploited. Clinton says the reason why forgiveness is talked about so much in Scripture is because it’s really hard to do. That is a perfect opportunity to explore her understanding further (I’m sure many people would disagree that the reason why it’s discussed so much is because of its difficulty).

There’s also this weird section:

In high school, [Clinton] was influenced by the Rev. Donald Jones, a charismatic youth minister. He introduced his charges to the world beyond their suburban enclave, taking them to the South Side of Chicago to interact with black and Hispanic teenagers and baby-sit for migrant workers. On one memorable evening, he took them to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I wouldn’t have focused so much on personal salvation,” Mr. Jones said recently about his message then. “I would have focused more on social responsibility.”

That quote in no way supports the preceding paragraph. The first graph is all social responsibility, social responsibility, social responsibility. So where was the long-lost focus on personal salvation? Was it there but the reporter didn’t note it? Was he confused about the difference between personal salvation and social responsibility? Or what in the world does that quote mean?

This part was very interesting, however:

In a brief quiz about her theological views, Mrs. Clinton said she believed in the resurrection of Jesus, though she described herself as less sure of the doctrine that being a Christian is the only way to salvation. As for how literally to interpret the Bible, she takes a characteristically centrist view.

“The whole Bible gives you a glimpse of God and God’s desire for a personal relationship, but we can’t possibly understand every way God is communicating with us,” she said. “I’ve always felt that people who try to shoehorn in their cultural and social understandings of the time into the Bible might be actually missing the larger point.”

This would have been exciting to get more details on. Does she believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus? Or the metaphorical one confessed by some mainstream religious types? And that second statement about faith in Jesus being one of many options could use some elaboration. There are infinite ways to interpret that statement. But perhaps another reporter will follow up on those if this religious-outreach-to-primary-voters trend continues. Either way, the story is worth your time, even with its limitations.

God  s PoliticsAnother lengthy feature on Democrats and religion ran in Time last week. It is extremely simplistic and cheerleading with cherry-picked statistics and cheesy turns of phrase (“the party began to test the holy waters”) — all to hammer home the point that evangelicals and other religious types are up for grabs.

Nevertheless, it has a few interesting quotes and anecdotes. Besides, no one reads Time for nuance. Anyway, after the devastating 2004 loss, helped along through the systematic alienation of many religiously devout, the Dems had a Great Awakening, write Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:

Stunned by the results, Democratic leaders launched polls and focus groups and strategy sessions. At the Democratic headquarters, even Dean, now chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was getting into the spirit. He had seen the Democrats’ share of the evangelical vote drop from 33%, when Bill Clinton ran, to 17% for Kerry. Dean’s aides began asking state party chairs, Do you talk to religious press? Do you know any religious leaders, even? Ever think to organize them? The response came back, Well, no, not really. Like the national party, most local Democrats had always done their outreach to various constituencies in silos — veterans on one set of issues, African Americans on another, women on another and so forth. There was never any common language of faith to appeal to those voters. “We walked away from the single institution most Americans turned to when they try to be better than they are,” admits Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “It was a huge mistake.”

The story is all “religion at the service of politics” rather than a meaningful examination of anyone’s religious views, but it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. Reminder #345,339,421: it pays to be political if you want coverage of your religious views.

On that note, the Times and CBS News teamed up to poll religious folks about their views of Iraq, George W. Bush and religious rhetoric in stump speeches. The results suggest a shift although they also confirm the difficulty that Democratic candidates have in being open about their religion: many in their base don’t want to hear about it. Also, voters really distrust atheists.

So reporters are trying to improve their coverage of religious Democrats. They’re just struggling to get to anything terribly substantive. I mean, I’m sure many mainstream reporters think it’s fascinating to learn that voters enjoy a bit of the religious imagery in political rhetoric, but a casual survey of nearly ever political speech made for the last couple hundred years could have told them that. Hopefully we’ll see more coverage of actual religious beliefs and not things that look surprisingly similar to the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. Let us know if you see any good ones.

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  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I’ve written before that I find it naive and dangerous for Christians to vote for politicians who purport to share their religious beliefs. These people are politicians — that inherently means they are not necessarily speaking to what they believe but to what they think voters want to hear.

  • Ben Carr

    Regarding this statement:

    “I wouldn’t have focused so much on personal salvation,” Mr. Jones said recently about his message then. “I would have focused more on social responsibility.”

    I think it’s not well explained, but it’s pretty clear what happened. The reporter asked the Rev. Jones what sort of things he’d preached about back in the Hillary days, and he responded in the passive tense.

    The preceding graf seems to be about Hillary’s social-responsibility experience at that time, while the quote is supposed to underscore that that is indeed what her pastor meant to teach her about.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, you hit the nail on the head. The MSM seems focused on the horse race and the unstated assumption that politicians are cynics only interested in winning. I’m sure many are, of course, but maybe a few care more about what is so well said in Mark 8:36 about selling one’s soul (in acts of hypocrisy) to win power. From the typical media/political operative viewpoint, religion is relevant if it helps someone get elected or can be used in a story emphasizing the conflict between groups.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    ” the churches that are focused less on American politics and more on, say, the Sacraments, worship, eternal life, etc.” LOL!!!! So well put!

    You know, I am sort of tired of people trying to say God is a Republican, or Democrat. I know of nowhere in the Bible where God puts ANYTHING up for a vote. If God has any political beliefs it seems that He has a strong Libertarian streak (in granting us free will) set in a hierarchical Monarchy… with, with Him being GOD, and all, him as the King. There are lots of examples of “Christ the KING”, but none to “Christ the Consul”, “Christ the Tribune”, or “Christ the Senator”.

    On a more serious note, I would recomend the book WHO REALLY CARES. I haven’t read it yet, but I heard the author on the radio a few days ago and was quite impressed. One of the interesting statistics from the intereview (cut and pasted here from his website) says

    “People who are religious give more across the board to all causes than their non-religious counterparts

    There is a huge “charity gap” that follows religion: On average, religious people are far more generous than secularists with their time and money. This is not just because of giving to churches—religious people are more generous than secularists towards explicitly non-religious charities as well. They are also more generous in informal ways, such as giving money to family members, and behaving honestly.”

    I bring this up here because when he breaks down giving by POLITICS it gets VERY interesting. Left Secularists and Right Secularists were pretty much even in giving. Members of the Religious Left were equal to the Members of the Religious Right in terms of giving. However Right totally dominates over the Left in terms of personal giving, in money, time, and blood donations. The reason is there are VERY few religious people on the Left wing of American Politics.

    If I am remembering the interview right, this has deep and profound implications, not just that most of the Democratic base don’t want to hear about God and Religion.

    (As Mal said on Firefly once “Men of God make people feel guilty and nervious.”)

    If these stats show what I (based upon a half remembered radio interview) recall they do, it would seem that the entire idea of a “Great Awakening” of a “Religious Left” is just so much smoke and mirrors dreamed up by inside the beltway consultants, about as authentic as that bad southern accent Hillary trots out on occasion.

  • Chris Duckworth

    Mollie, as usual, you offer a thought-provoking piece. But in the end I do not share your concern about the religious questions that are neither asked nor answered in the articles you critique here.

    I’m not sure if she’s not sharing or if the reporter isn’t disclosing it, but we never learn anything about the central role of forgiveness in Christian thought. The story makes it hard to discern the difference between what a therapist might tell you about “letting go” of resentment and what a devout Christian might say.

    The central role of forgiveness in Christian thought? There have been dissertations written on the subject! I’m not sure that I need to know nor really care how a politician understands the role of forgiveness in Christian thought (and neither am I sure that I’d trust a political journalist – or even certain theologians – with that subject!). Accepting that for Senator Clinton forgiveness is an act of faith she values highly, I’m more curious about how this impacts her politics, if at all. I don’t care about the details of her theology. She could have crappy theology for all I care – but I don’t care. If she professes to be religious, I want to know how her religious profession (whatever it may be) will affect her politics.

    Does she believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus? Or the metaphorical one confessed by some mainstream religious types?

    Again, what does her belief in the physical or metaphorical resurrection of Jesus have to do with nukes in North Korea or balancing a federal budget? I don’t see why we need political journalists asking such questions.

    I am more interested in Clinton’s (and any politician’s, for that matter) understanding of the role and reach of government, and the various beliefs and philosophies that impact their understanding of the role and reach of government. Questions about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection or the role of forgiveness – I’ll save those for the election of my next Bishop, not my next President.

  • Scott Allen

    So Chris (5), you are really saying that the NYT, TIME and CBS are wrong to cover the “religious angle” at all? Even though both parties court voters on that basis? OK.

  • Mollie


    I actually don’t care, in terms of whether I’ll vote for Clinton, about her religious views. That might be slightly overstated but for the most part I really don’t care.

    But if you’re going to write a story about her religious views, I think you should cover them.

  • Will Harrington

    Chris, one reason I would care is because if the politician has a shallow understanding of the doctrin or theology their talking about, I can be pretty sure they are just throwing out focused group buzzwords to try and atract religious folks and that tells me a great deal about whether or not I want to vote for them.

  • Chris Duckworth

    I think that journalists can ask what a politician believes, particularly/especially if that politician uses religious belief on the stump. However, I’m not sure that journalists need to critique that belief against any kind of plumb line or broader consensus of Christian thought (which is what I thought Mollie was suggesting) – for surely there is not one “Christian thought” out there.

    I think journalists should accept as a given what the candidate says about her faith – that forgiveness is a religious teaching that is important to her, for example – and ask what role faith or faith teachings play in her life or politics. But once we start evaluating the precise nature of a candidate’s belief and contrasting it with what one journalist characterizes as “Christian thought,” well, I get nervous. First, it is no longer an article about one person’s politics but about one person’s religion, and that’s not why I read the New York Times (such an article might be more appropriate for Christianity Today or Christian Century, perhaps).

    Furthermore, I’m not sure that such a religious evaluation is really useful for our political discourse (I’d love more emphasis on Romney’s politics and less on his religion, for example – how is the discussion of the LDS helpful to understanding his governing philosophy?). And if religious evaluation of political leaders is useful, I’ll leave that to my own discernment or to religious teachers/leaders whom I trust and with whom I share a faith perspective. But I for one don’t care if my president is very religious (as George W. Bush) or not so religious (as Ronald Reagan). I care more about their politics.

  • Will Harrington

    I for one, don’t vote for a persons politics, or their religion, I vote for a person. I would like to know as much about them as possible and If you want to run for president then you don’t get to hide behind cries of personal and private. I have a right to enough information to make judgements about your political and policy views, about your temperment, and about your character. I want to know if you will be a good role model for kids or if your behavior will give people a handle on your to hold to blackmail you. Yes, religion is a part of it. If you profess a faith, I want to know if you at least try to live it. If you don’t your just another scummy politician like those who have contributed to the lowest approval ratings for any Cangress. If you wont let that information even be considered, then I’ll just write you off assumming that your one of the aformentioned scummy politicians. I always figured it was the journalists job to get us that information.


  • Miggsathon

    Will Harrington writes: “I for one, don’t vote for a persons politics, or their religion, I vote for a person.”

    That’s a lot of what’s wrong with politics in America. It becomes a personal popularity contest, like a high school prom king/queen vote, rather than a sober assessment of whether a candidate’s vision for the country matches your vision for the country. It’s kind of hard for democracy — that is, rule of the people — to function when the people use their vote not as a means of setting policy but as a means of expressing personal affection for individual candidates.

  • Scott Allen

    Thank you Chris, for your explanation. Sorry I’ve been busy and didn’t get to it until just now.