Praying with Hillary

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How does religion relate to presidential conduct? Every now and then, a president acts in a way that pretty clearly seems to express his religious commitments. Rarely is the expression as clear as it’s been with George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. But it was not hard to see a religious impulse at work in, for example, Jimmy Carter’s assiduous pursuit of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
With presidential candidates, of course, we can only ask questions. And, when a candidate’s religion worries some portion of the electorate, the questions tend to be unedifying. Would Jack Kennedy take orders from Rome? Would Mitt Romney take orders from Salt Lake? Would Barack Obama take orders from Jeremiah Wright?
Of greater use to to try to see the candidate’s religious background and journey (if journey there be) as a window onto his or her identity. In this regard, Hillary Clinton’s more than passing engagement in the semi-secret organization known as The Family is of more than passing interest. Yesterday this blog received a comment from Jeff Sharlet, whose book on the organization, The Family, will be out in a little over a week. Our exchange is here.
Sharlet book.jpgHaving not yet read the book, I’m not sure to what extent, if any, Sharlet ties Clinton to the Family’s right-wing political inclinations. He agrees that the thing has a fundamentally establishmentarian ethos–how the Family is dedicated to bringing Washington’s movers and shakers together. That is the source of its particular appeal to Clinton, I suspect. (It is sort of the Renaissance Weekend of American religion.) That her favorite Bible story is Esther speaks volumes: Make me the queen and I’ll save the people from the evil that threatens.
More than anything else, it is the impulse to solve problems from the top down, from the inside out, that seems at the core of Clinton’s public being. Her failed health care initiative is the case par excellence. What’s missing is the inspirational voice, the prophetic challenge, the spiritual summons. That latter–just words, she says–is, of course, Obama’s stock in trade. At bottom, they are religious opposites.
Update: My exchange with Sharlet continues in the comments to this post.

  • I didn’t know that about Esther. While I’m sure it really does pre-date her relationship with The Family, it’s a choice that reveals a certain sympathy of ends and means with The Family: that’s a popular favorite for Family women, too. Most, unlike Hillary, don’t exert the kind of top-down power she aspires to; while the Family accommodates powerful political women, most wives within the group believe in “male headship.” Esther works well with that, too.
    I’ve just published a new piece on Hillary’s affinities in The New Republic:
    There are no orders being given or received in or around The Family (or at Jeremiah Wright’s church, of course). Rather, as you say, it’s a matter of religion as a window into identity, and rarely have we had such a clear view with the three candidates. McCain/Hagee reveals McCain’s fundamental indifference to religious substance he doesn’t share, and pragmatic willingness to make common cause with those he thinks can help him. Nuthin’ but politics there. Obama/Wright reveals a conflicted desire to both exercise a prophetic voice and to hold power, a contradiction in terms. Clinton/The Family reveals the candidate’s paternalistic and narcissistic view of how God works in the world and how power works in the world.

  • Mark Silk

    I’m with you on Clinton, Jeff, but I’d make adjustments on McCain and Obama. It seems to me significant that Hagee and Parsley, the two evangelical pastors who have been most closely tied to McCain, are both distinguished for their ideas on the Middle East: Hagee for over-the-top Christian Zionism and Pasley for hostility to Islam. This seems more than an affinity of religious indifference. On Obama, the prophetic is normally opposed to the priestly, with neither exactly possessed of power, at least in the secular sense. The prophetic mode does have a traditional role in the presidency–n.b. Lincoln, A. Whether one entirely goes along with Richard Neustradt’s old thesis about the power to persuade, I think there’s not as much of a contradiction in the Obama mode as you do.

  • I think you’re absolutely right about Hagee/Parsley and McCain, Mark, and that should be a MUCH bigger story. But religiously, it’s less significant — McCain comes to those views from a secular stance; he accepts the endorsements of men we can imagine from his life and career he finds distasteful because he thinks they’ll help his campaign. They go to McCain not because they like him or share religious meaning with him, but because they hate Islam, and they see McCain as the best chance to put American power behind that sentiment. It’s a marriage of convenience.
    Obama, that’s trickier, right? Because while the classic dichotomy is the prophetic and the priesthood, that doesn’t really square with the way religion and politics work in America, I think, where the prophetic tradition defines itself in defiance of establishment power. I don’t think there’s much of prophetic presidential tradition — in my book, only Lincoln, who was, in the unique situation of being a president and defying establishment power at the same time. JFK and Reagan occasionally invoked prophetic rhetoric, but only to establishment ends.
    The political prophetic tradition — John Brown, Dorothy Day, MLK, Malcolm (and maybe some pro-lifers, too) — can’t ever really be at peace with the presidency. That, to me, is a strong mark in Obama’s favor (almost as strong as his selection of Moby Dick as his favorite book). If elected, he’ll be an establishment figure — but he may be one of the very rare leaders with that tension that leads to either tragedy or great change.

  • Mark Silk

    I’m inclined to agree with you about McCain, certainly as far as the pastors’ motivation is concerned. But I’m not quite ready to dismiss McCain’s own trajectory as purely secular. There is something puzzling about his latching on to the Iraq war and Islamic terrorism as representing ultimate global reality. It seems connected to the existential experience he had as a POW. I don’t pretend to understand it–it just seems to have a spiritual dimension to it.
    As for Obama, I think there’s a tendency to narrow the whole prophetic tradition down to Amos coming off his hilltop and denouncing the priests–or Jesus, for that matter. But Moses was a prophet–and a political leader. Samuel was a kingmaker. Nathan was David’s house scold. Jeremiah yelled at the people. Isaiah yelled at them and comforted them. Jonah was a jerk. So there’s more to the prophetic allocution that simply speaking truth to power. In the rather secular way we’re approaching the subject, it has to do with conveying important, even transcendent, often inconvenient truths.
    In that sense other presidents than Lincoln have opined in something like a prophetic mode. Think of Ike and the military industrial complex. Or Washington’s Farewell Address. Or Carter and malaise. Or maybe even Reagan plumping for peace with the Evil Empire. Obama’s race speech was a reasonable facsimile.

  • You’ve just written the best ever cliffs notes of the prophets. “Jonah was a jerk” has the concision of poetry. (Not being snarky, btw; I think it’s great.)
    You’re pushing me to be more thoughtful, and I appreciate it. Awhile back I wrote about McCain’s oddly uncommented-on use of the phrase “transcendent evil” to describe the form of Islam he opposes. This is heavy duty religious language, of course. But in McCain’s case, it’s secularized in that he doesn’t see it as derived from a religious source.
    Your points on the prophetic tradition being too narrowly defined are well taken. I suppose that’s the tradition I happen to like best — what writer wouldn’t? — but it’s not the whole kit and kaboodle. That said, the tension between prophecy and establishment power remains, and Obama seems to have the potential to actually maintain that tension. Maybe. I’m not sure I give prophetic credit to the other presidents. The difference being is that Obama A) explicitly draws on religious sources; and B) goes beyond statements of simple fact that are remarkable only in that they’re coming from a politician. So Carter’s “malaise” remark isn’t prophetic — everyone else was clued into the trouble America faced, it was simply unusual to hear a president admit it.

  • Mark Silk

    OK, I think we’re about there. For what it’s worth, Jonah is my favorite book in the Bible–the jaundiced view of the prophet. Fair enough on McCain, and on the tension between prophecy and establishment power (as well as moral lassitude of all sorts). I agree that Carter was a stretch he’s a Jonah, so far as I’m concerned. (Check out this recent little piece of pompous self-deception: Do prophets have to be original? Even Jesus wasn’t entirely. It was their status–the fact that God chose them to speak through–that gave them their right to be heard. Presidents have been anointed by the American people. Vox populi Americani, vox Dei–there’s idolatry for you. Anyway, I’m with you on Obama. And I’ve enjoyed this exchange.