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Michelle and Hillary: A tale of two Christians

(RNS) The author admires both women for -- in their individual ways -- living out their faith.

First lady Michelle Obama, left, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  applaud during the State Department's 2012 International Women of Courage Award winners ceremony in Washington on March 8, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Gary Cameron
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TREMBATH-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 26, 2016.

(RNS) Two of my favorite Christians are Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. They may not talk explicitly about their faith very often, but with a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, “I know a Christian when I see one.”

Obama plays Christian values in an American key.

First, she sparkles — not because she is lovely or hip or because her smile lights up a room or YouTube — but because she’s authentic. In describing “my girls” for the sake of her “Let Girls Learn” initiative, we can observe how completely, genuinely present she is to every child she meets.

I am convinced that her effectiveness flows from her Christian faith. She exudes the Judeo-Christian truth claims about essential human dignity and the common good. She has made those values come alive through both her presence and her programs. That is why history will notice her as one of the great first ladies.

Clinton does not flash. She is so often called a “wonk” that we forget that is a compliment — because wonks get legislation passed that helps people. Legislating and public service are not sexy. They require dogged practice, like a parent reading “Green Eggs and Ham” for the 12th time to a child who has just discovered how letters become words. Even if you are madly in love with the child, “I do not like them Sam I Am” gets old. This is a parent’s tedious, quiet, not flashy but very important work. Remind you of anyone?

In her wrangling with the Bernie Sanders presidential movement, Secretary of State Clinton highlighted the importance of knowing how practical legislation can become law. If we don’t pass laws that implement our values, movements mean little. Have we not seen this played out in the relationship between the civil rights movement and actual access to the voting booth?

Christianity is both an intellectual tradition and a practical program for human development. At Santa Clara University, we challenge our students to wrangle with foundational truth claims of Judaism and Christianity. From the Hebrew Bible: The notion that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God anchors the entire tradition. It is similar to the Christian notion that the reign of God is fulfilled in modern society when the hungry are fed, the marginalized are brought to the center and all persons are treated with value and care. We are the way God gets things done in our messy beautiful world. We have to put God’s care into practice.

When some say things are about to get even more ugly and inhumane in this campaign season, I hark back to the civic responsibilities I learned from my deeply Christian father and mother. My father was a firefighter because he wanted a profession that allowed him to put his faith into practice. My mother was active in local community life because she felt obligated to serve God’s people.

These days, “Christian identity” has been taken hostage by voices that often know little of either the Hebrew Bible or Jesus’ good news.

While many voices try to make religious practice seem ignorant and silly, Obama and Clinton display a rich, deep practical Christianity.

(Sally Vance-Trembath is a lecturer in religious studies at Santa Clara University)