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Hillary on Christian faith: it’s about love and service, not judgment

Hillary Clinton defends a love and service version of Christianity congenial to mainline Protestants and contrasting with her GOP foes.

Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

On Monday night in Iowa, Hillary Clinton encountered a self-identified Catholic Democrat named Jessica Manning. Mrs. Manning wanted to know how Mrs. Clinton aligned her politics and her faith, in a context where Democrats and Republicans both say their politics is grounded in their Christian faith.

With gratitude to the New York Times for transcribing Mrs. Clinton’s lengthy response, I offer highlights, and my interpretations, contrasting Hillary’s mainline Protestant type of faith with the conservative evangelicalism mainly being offered by the Republicans.

I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but [also] through my church.

Mainline Protestants like Hillary Clinton tend to use the phrase “people of faith” far more often than more conservative evangelicals do. This is because they want to express respect for and commonality with people of other religions. Also notice that Mrs. Clinton emphasizes her denominational background, which is more common among mainliners than evangelicals. And Hillary here identifies her faith as communicated through her family and her church, which is a less individualistic and more communal way of talking about faith.

It is absolutely fair for people to have strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith. Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it.

Here Mrs. Clinton affirms strong, faith-based religious, moral, and political convictions. But she also calls for dialogue, and for recognition that people’s life experiences shape how they interpret faith, or faithfulness — as opposed to being simply delivered to them from on high. Notice that she stays with “people of faith” language so she need not just be speaking of Christians and Christianity. She is indicating that many faiths are included in the American community, not just the Christian tribe.

My study of the Bible…has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.

Secretary Clinton goes directly to what Christians call the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), in which Jesus does in fact pull together two passages from the Hebrew Bible to say that the center of religious obligation is to love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself. She is on very strong biblical ground here.

There is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves…

Secretary Clinton doesn’t finish the comparison but I think we can assume she is contrasting a faith focused on caring for the vulnerable (her reference is probably to Matthew 25:31-46) with a faith focused on judging or rejecting others for falling short of our moral standards. Because this is what she says next:

I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith…I have been very disappointed and sorry that Christianity, which has such great love at its core, is sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly.

It sure looks like here Hillary is driving home at least an implicit comparison to the versions of faith being offered by some of her Republican adversaries. My faith, she says, seeks to be tolerant, respectful, and humble. Their faith…well, you do the math.

Look at yourself first, to make sure you are being the kind of person you should be in how you are treating others…I am by no means a perfect person, I will certainly confess that to one and all, but I feel the continuing urge to try to do better, to try to be kinder, to try to be more loving, even with people who are quite harsh.

One of the distinctive contributions of the Wesleyan Methodist tradition has been a very strong emphasis on what has been called sanctification, or growth in holiness. Here Mrs. Clinton strikes that note. Rather than a faith that is about judging others for falling short of your understanding of the standard, she argues for a faith that is about constant effort to be a better and more loving person. Notice the reference to all the harsh criticism she has received.

What is not here? Nothing about America as a Christian nation or America’s Christian heritage. Nothing about defending Christians or protecting Christianity or religious liberty. Nothing about rolling back gay rights or abortion. Nothing about America’s dangerous slide into secularism. Nothing that involves attacking people of other faiths or saying we need to keep them out.

Like her or not, Mrs. Clinton’s articulation of her version of Christian faith is an important contribution to the faith and politics conversation, one week before the Iowa caucuses.