Hillary’s Church

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Coe and Clinton.jpgA number of readers (nice to hear from you) have written in to say they think Hillary Clinton’s current church is the Fellowship (or “the Family”), the rather secretive organization that for decades has run the National Prayer Breakfast and which sponsors various prayer groups for government officials and their spouses. Clinton joined up when she arrived in Washington as the First Lady in 1993 and apparently has since ascended to the most elite of its “cells.” It’s a basically evangelical operation (though non-evangelicals participate) and it forswears partisan politics even as it pushes towards the right. I once co-authored a book on the American Establishment (called The American Establishment), and what the Family mostly seems to me to be is one of those organizations that do do what establishmentarian organizations always do: provide the contacts and networks, the modes of understanding and accommodation, and the rites of entry and inclusion that enable elites to function and perpetuate themselves. The Family appears to be a right-wing example of the breed–rather more inclusive, by the evidence available, than, for example, most right-wing Washington think tanks. It does have a shadowy leader, which makes it seem more ominous than it otherwise might. His name is Doug Coe, who Clinton describes in Living History as “a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”
The key source on the organization at the moment is this article by Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet from last September’s Mother Jones, but come May, Sharlet’s book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power will be out. Sharlet, who edits the sharp and snarky religion news website, The Revealer, generally gives good weight, so what he has to say will be worth reading. Whether the Family should be considered Hillary’s current church depends, I suppose, on what you mean by church. Prayer and Bible study groups have in recent years become primary religious reference points for non-Catholic American Christians–President Bush included. Hillary Clinton, however, has in the past been pretty churchy in the traditional sense. However deeply she felt the connection to the Family in her years as First Lady, for example, she was an active participant in Foundry United Methodist. There’s no indication I’ve yet found that she’s been equally engaged anywhere else during her years in the Senate.
Mt. Pleasant Methodist.jpgUpdate: So far as we can tell, Clinton attended Easter services this year at the United Methodist Church of Mt. Pleasant, NY. To hear the politically uncontroversial sermon she heard that day, look here.

  • Mark — thanks for mentioning the book and your kind words. For what it’s worth, I think your description of The Family in light of The American Establishment is pretty dead-on. The only qualification I’d make is that it’s greater than normal inclusivity makes it more powerful than more doctrinally pure think tanks but does nothing to counterbalance its rightward lean. That rightist tilt is most evident not in its influence on domestic politics but in foreign affairs, where it has concentrated most of its energy ever since its first project — breaking up radical labor — succeeded with Taft-Hartley in 1947. Overseas, The Family strongly favors dictatorship and has been effective in arranging support for “key man” dictators it deems anointed by God. Of course, this simply confirms your point about its establishmentarian thrust.
    As for for Hillary and The Family, no, I wouldn’t say it’s her church, though she did make a much stronger commitment than most “Friends,” a semi-formal designation for politicians who don’t become members but do become nodes in the network. (For what it’s worth: Neither Obama nor McCain are Friends. That doesn’t make them enemies, just puts them at a further remove).
    As for sources, yep, my book is the biggie. Sociologist D. Michael Lindsay of Rice has also done some work on The Family (aka The Fellowship), but I’m the only person to do extensive archival research. There are a few other journalists who’ve done good work on The Family, including Lisa Getter of the LA Times, Tore Gjerstad of the Norwegian Dagbladet, Jim Popkin at NBC, and Claudia Wilke, an German documentary filmmaker.
    But The Family is the tome. At 464 pages, it weighs a lot. Hopefully some of that is good weight. Not much snark — this is a whole other ball game than The Revealer.