5 faith facts about Hillary Clinton: Social Gospel Methodist to the core

(RNS) She once said that advertising her faith didn't come naturally to her. In this campaign, she's stepped it up anyway.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, speaks at a church on May 15, 2016, during her presidential campaign. Photo courtesy of Reuters

WASHINGTON (RNS) Throughout her 2016 presidential campaign, one facet of Hillary Clinton, 68, has been unchanging. She was, is and likely always will be a social-justice-focused Methodist.

This has been evident across her decades as a lawyer, first lady, senator and secretary of state right up to her passionate response to a question about faith at a Democrats Town Hall a week before the Iowa caucus. Clinton drew her answer from her Bible, where, she said, she learned ”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.”

Here are five faith facts about Clinton’s life and how her faith shows in her run for the presidency.

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1. Look to the Methodists.

She drew that tweet from a popular saying among Methodists: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” says Paul Kengor in his book “God and Hillary Clinton.”

As a girl, she was part of the guild that cleaned the altar at First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill. As a teen, she visited inner-city Chicago churches with the youth pastor, Don Jones, her spiritual mentor until his death in 2009. During her husband’s presidency, the first family worshipped at Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church, and this fall she spoke at the church’s 200th anniversary. Time magazine described her membership in a bipartisan women’s prayer group organized by evangelicals.

2. There’s a Bible in her purse and a gospel song in her heart.

But, she told the 2007 CNN Faith Forum, “advertising” her faith “doesn’t come naturally to me.” Every vote Clinton made as a senator from New York, she said, was “a moral responsibility.” When asked at the forum why she thought God allows suffering, Clinton demurred on theology, then swiftly turned her answer to activism: “The existence of suffering calls us to action.”

In a 1993 speech at the University of Texas, Clinton declared: “We need a new politics of meaning. … We have to summon up what we believe is morally and ethically and spiritually correct and do the best we can with God’s guidance.” A month later, she was pictured as a saint in a Sunday New York Times Magazine exploration of that “politics of meaning” phrase.

Just days before Super Tuesday, with its hefty Southern state contingent of black evangelical voters, Clinton appeared at a gospel music event honoring African-American performers. According to Christian News, she told them the song that most encourages her in times of trouble: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She told the cheering crowd: “I know this is not just about music. It truly is about the message. It’s about the gospel and all that it means to so many of us.”

3. Prayer matters.

Clinton joked at the Faith Forum that sometimes her plea is, “Oh, Lord, why can’t you help me lose weight?” But her daily habit, she said, is praying, “for discernment, for wisdom, for strength, for courage … ”

What she calls “grace notes” matter, too. She described them to adviser Burns Strider as ”a gift that is undeserved but bestowed by the everyday joys, beauties, kindnesses, pleasures of life that can strike a deep chord of connection between us and the divine and between us and the mundane.”

RELATED STORY:  ‘Grace Notes’ and the quiet unshakable faith of Hillary Clinton

4. God politics is tough.

In 2008, Clinton battered then-Sen. Barack Obama for saying economically hard-pressed Americans were bitter and “cling to guns or religion.” At the CNN Compassion Forum, Clinton said the Democratic Party “has been viewed as a party that didn’t understand the values and way of life of so many Americans. … It’s important that we make clear that we believe people are people of faith because it is part of their whole being. It is what gives them meaning in life.”

In April 2015,  Clinton told the annual United Methodist Women Assembly that their shared faith has guided her to be “an advocate for children and families, for women and men around the world who are oppressed and persecuted, denied their human rights and human dignity.”

But no matter what she says about her faith informing her life, she faces a Catch-22, as American religion expert Daniel Silliman wrote in The Washington Post. “It’s not clear how she should talk about faith on the campaign trail. Voters want to hear about her beliefs, but they also often don’t believe her.”

RELATED STORY: Hillary on Christian faith: It’s about love and service, not judgment

5. On the campaign trail …

Clinton often outrages conservative evangelicals.

Just weeks after her 2016 campaign launch, Clinton told a global woman’s conference that, in countries where women struggled for education and reproductive rights, “laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

Christian media and Republican candidates took that comment to the bank.  Fox News’ headline: Hillary: ‘Religious Beliefs’ Must Change For Sake Of Abortion.

Her support for Planned Parenthood, in the wake of a series of covert videos that purported to show executives negotiating the price of fetal tissue, is a rallying cry for the anti-abortion rights movement. Yet, Clinton never fails to mention her support for reproductive rights, along with backing gay rights, same-sex marriage and equal pay.

This did not prevent several African-American pastors from laying hands on her in prayer and blessing in early February. But she also has gathered the condemnation of some faith bloggers. Christian Today, for example, reported one pastor blogger, Bryan Ridenour, writing on his blog: “If a church member asks in 2016 if I can support Hillary Clinton, I can unequivocally respond, ‘Not in this lifetime.’”

But political pundits still expect Clinton to do well with evangelical black Protestants, women and older voters, and the South Carolina massive vote for her — from exactly those groups — confirmed this.

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