(RNS) — In his new book “Strong for a Moment Like This,” the Rev. Bill Shillady shares the daily devotionals he emailed to his friend Hillary Clinton during her historic run for president.
Released Tuesday (Aug. 15), its entries are personal sermonettes written by the United Methodist minister to uplift the candidate during a fraught campaign, but also a window into the relationship between them. It sheds light on the spiritual life of a former politician who has recently expressed an interest in preaching.
This interview with Shillady was conducted before news broke that perhaps the most significant devotional entry in the book contains several lines that appear to be lifted from the work of another minister. Shillady has apologized and his publisher, Abingdon Press, said in a statement that it “fully accepts” that he did not intentionally leave the passages in question unattributed.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did your friendship with Hillary Clinton begin?
In 2002 I met then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a 9/11 remembrance service in New York City. I was serving as the pastor of the Park Avenue United Methodist Church on the Upper East Side. We had a chance to chat backstage, and a few months later she brought (her daughter) Chelsea to my church. And Chelsea began attending the church on a regular basis. My relationship as pastor really began as Sen. Clinton would join Chelsea at church on occasion.
On the day that Hillary declared she was running for president in 2008, the whole family came to church. As Hillary said to me, “Bill, Chelsea wanted us to attend her church today,” and I had a chance to meet President Clinton as well. When it came time for Chelsea’s engagement, they called me and asked me to be involved in that wedding. I basically have become a pastoral friend and presence to the family, leading the memorial service for her mother, Dorothy Rodham, when she died, and being involved in their lives. We have meals together and keep in touch by email and occasional phone calls and visits.
How would you describe Clinton’s faith? What are your impressions of her religious and spiritual life?
She’s a very deeply committed Christian. I know many people are critical of that and don’t believe it, but in my heart of hearts, from the conversations that we have had and from the good that she does, she’s a deeply committed disciple of Christ. And she’s a good Methodist. Methodists don’t talk about their faith very much. She doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve, but I know that she practices it and she has spiritual disciplines, including reading the Scriptures every day and praying every day. People aren’t going to want to believe that, but it is true.
Perhaps now she’ll be wearing it a little more on her sleeve because your book is published, right?
You know, during the campaign she did talk about her faith. But I feel as though people didn’t pay attention to it. The critics didn’t want to listen to it and the press didn’t cover it that much. But there were moments in town hall meetings, there were times in her speeches, where she would quote Scripture and talk about doing good.
To those who are skeptical of Clinton’s authenticity, what would you say?
I can affirm her authenticity. I have experienced it, and I have seen it with others. She has the kind of personality that is open and compassionate and concerned about issues of justice, and she’s a very loving person. She’s one of the most intelligent people I know. But I think, as you have stated, there are just people who don’t want to believe that. And since there’s been a great deal of publicity about the book and about my relationship to Hillary, I’m now getting incredible numbers of hate mail.
So people really just don’t want to believe the truth. And I’m reminded of the great Scriptural verse, “Judge not lest ye want to be judged.” I hope that someday, folks who are so critical might come to some understanding that they’re under the judgment of God just as much as everybody else instead of being the judges themselves.
There have been some recent reports that maybe Hillary is considering doing some preaching in the wake of the campaign — have you heard that?
Yeah, I’m the source of that! We had an opportunity to be together as we were preparing for the book in a photo shoot. We were talking and she said she wanted to do some preaching. And as you’re well aware, in the Methodist tradition laity and clergy have equal rights to the pulpit. And I think she would, indeed, make an incredibly good preacher, especially out of the life experience that she has just had of coming from one of the most difficult, devastating losses that a person could experience, to find that her faith helped her through that time. And she knows her Bible!
The devotional entries in your book are very personal and relevant to the events of the day, but they do not focus on issues that might be perceived as partisan. Was that intentional?
I think so. We concentrated on the important values of the Christian faith and other traditions, caring for children, concern for the disenfranchised and the marginalized, and also writing stories about caring for widows and orphans and immigrants. We kept to the biblical themes, which some would argue can be political in and of themselves.
Did you ever feel conflicted, as a pastor, about supporting a political candidate as her spiritual adviser?
It’s obvious that I am a supporter of her. I’m a progressive pastor in the United Methodist Church, so we are kindred spirits. And I didn’t find any conflict in being supportive of her and my particular faith. My organization did not endorse her, but I was just the pastoral friend that encouraged her and sustained her spiritually. I guess I could say that I’m certainly supportive of her because some of the values of her campaign are values that I cherish as a Christian pastor concerning justice, compassion, dignity and love.
Hope is a common theme in the devotions, especially the entries toward the end, after the election loss. Were they hard to write?
Hillary asked me to open up the Jacob Javits Center (gathering on election night) with a prayer; and then as the night went on, it felt more like a wake at a funeral. I went home and woke up early the next morning to write the next entry. Hope is where it’s at, and I think the Nov. 9 devotional has already touched the heart of many people. Everybody experiences “Fridays” in their lives, whether it’s the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, devastating news about cancer or another illness — we all have those days. The good news is “Sunday” will come. It may take awhile, which is why I say, “God doesn’t close one door without opening another, but it can be hell in the hallway.”
I think in the midst of grief or loss we definitely go deeper into the bedrock of our beliefs and our life’s purpose. I think that’s what’s happened for Hillary, that her faith has helped her now to come out of the woods.
(Zach Hoag is the author of “The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life.” Find him writing at zhoag.com and follow him on Twitter @zhoag)