A life: Ghosts in a Dorothy Rodham obit?

Just yesterday, I praised a member of the Washington Post team for weaving valid religious content into the obituary of a former Washington, D.C., police official whose life led him from trailblazing work as an advocate of racial equality into a remarkable final act as a Catholic monk and priest. The story showed unusual grace in portraying the themes that were woven through the life of the man who died as Father James Murray.

And today? Well, today I want to highlight the Washington Post obituary of a woman who was much better known — because of her world-famous daughter.

In this case we are dealing with a story that represents a missed opportunity, a religious ghost, that I found rather strange. Here’s the top of the story:

Dorothy Rodham, 92, a suburban Chicago homemaker who endured a devastating childhood and served as an inspiration to her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the most accomplished women in American government, died Nov. 1 at a hospital in Washington. …

Mrs. Rodham never worked outside the home, raising three children in the suburban enclave of Park Ridge, Ill., under the watchful eye of her husband, a conservative Republican who owned a drapery-making business. In a restrictive household dominated by its patriarch, Mrs. Rodham funneled ambition and a passion for learning to her daughter, who has long credited her mother with giving her the tools — and toughness — to enter politics.

I kept waiting for a crucial word to pop up in this story — “Methodist.”

Throughout her career, Hillary Rodham Clinton has publicly emphasized the role that her family’s Methodist faith played in her beliefs and, especially, in her drive to seek social justice. In this obit, however, there are many references to the restrictions that surrounded the life of Dorothy Rodham and her daughter, and no references to any liberating role for faith. There are, of course, religious ghosts on the theological left, as well as the right.

And then there is this remarkable passage that certainly raises questions worth asking:

Dorothy Emma Howell was born June 4, 1919, in Chicago, the eldest of two daughters of Edwin Howell Jr., a firefighter, and Della Murray.

Her parents’ marriage turned violent. After their divorce in the late 1920s, they sent their daughters — Dorothy and Isabelle — alone on a train to California to live with their paternal grandparents, who turned out to be severe and unpredictable disciplinarians. Her grandmother, who was fond of black Victorian dresses and discouraged parties or visitors, once confined Dorothy to her bedroom for a year, with the exception of attending school, as punishment for trick-or-treating.

Oh my. Where to begin? That certainly doesn’t sound like 20th century American Methodism to me. Instead, it sounds like the kind of harsh, conservative, separatist Protestantism that could drive someone to seek a more progressive mainline church as a spiritual home. Or was the faith in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s childhood the product of her conservative father, alone?

Unfortunately, the rest of the story is silent on these issues.

Over at the Chicago Tribune, the obituary for Mrs. Rodham offered this additional reference:

Dorothy Rodham took a variety of college courses even though she never completed a degree. A Democrat, she was a counter to the conservative Republicanism of her husband, who became a successful businessman. …

The Rodham family were regulars at the First United Methodist Church, four blocks north of their Wisner Street home. Clinton said her mother’s early life helped inspire Clinton’s later interest in children’s advocacy. Dorothy Rodham also preached the importance of keeping even the rockiest of marriages together.

And that’s that. Haunting, to say the least.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://i-need-a-bigger-boat.com Shawn

    Interesting. I wish more would be said/written about the faith foundations of H. Clinton. fascinating.

  • http://www.mysecretismine.com Kristen McGuire

    Oh, this is an easy one, trace it right back to the evolution of Methodist sensibilities. My father was raised by fundamentalist Methodists in the midwest who frowned on dancing, drinking, etc. and were by all accounts, very, very judgmental– and harsh parents. But they were Methodist – his father was even a Methodist minister. So, I believe that some of the “liberal” turn of the Methodist church from 1960 on can be traced directly to this kind of formulaic rendering of the gospel that very rightly felt to the youngsters of that generation as oppressive. My parents today are strong members of the Methodist church, but I would characterize them as liberal in social mores. (I am now Catholic, but I spent time at a Methodist seminary in the late ’80s where “anything goes” was pretty much the ethos.)

    This topic (fundie Methodists from the early 1900s whose restrictive morals forced their children to reject their black and white morality) would make such an interesting book, who knows? maybe someone already wrote one on it?