November 1, 2007
More than once, Senator Hillary Clinton has blasted conservative Christian politicians for wearing their faith on their sleeve (she didn’t name names). On one occasion, this condemnation elicited screaming cheers from outraged liberals in the audience.
This was a curious accusation and reaction, given the source. It was leveled by a politician who in the two months prior to the November 2000 election morphed into a street preacher, barnstorming 27 New York churches, where she took the pulpit to quote Scripture and exegete its hidden message for the congregation: to run to the voting booth to vote for her.
"Thank you for the day the Lord hath made!” was a common Hillary exhortation from these pulpits. Her host ministers lifted their hands to the heavens and urged the worshipers to vote for the candidate. To cite one of dozens of examples, the pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem celebrated on October 1, 2000: “She’s gonna win! And we are going to come out in droves for her!” If that purpose were not crystal clear, Mrs. Clinton was quick to make it unmistakable: “I need your help.... Let’s have a great big turnout in the election! If you fight for me in the next five weeks, I will go to the Senate and fight for you for the next six years! Thank you, everybody! Thank you so-o-o-o-o much!””
This would seem an example of wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve, as would this episode: “When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talking about!” Mrs. Clinton leveled this nasty, notably uncharitable charge against the Republican House leadership on no less than Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2006 at an African American church in Harlem.
Mrs. Clinton learned this dubious craft from her husband. In fact, to help both Hillary and Al Gore mobilize the vote in 2000, Bill Clinton likewise did his part. For instance, on October 31, 2000 he hit the Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem. As in most such talks, he was joined by a contingent of fellow Democratic politicians. He began by reminding congregants why they were there:
“Now, we all know why we’re here, and we can shout amen and have a great time, and we’re all preaching to the saved…. But I want to talk to you about the people that aren’t in this church tonight, the people who have never come to an event like this and never heard a president speak or even a mayor or a comptroller or a senator or anybody. But they could vote. And they need to vote, and they need to know why they’re voting. And that’s really why you’re here.… So what you have to think about tonight is, what is it you intend to do between now and Tuesday, and on Tuesday, to get as many people there as possible and to make sure when they get to the polls, they know why they’re there, what the stakes are, and what the consequences are…. If you’ve got any friends across the river in New Jersey or anyplace else, I want you to reach them between now and Tuesday, because this is a razor-thin election.”
Bill Clinton did this kind of work throughout the 2000 campaign season, directly connecting the spiritual—the Scriptural, actually—to the political. Speaking to the congregation of Alfred Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 29—one of two church stops that day—Clinton employed a Bible verse as justification to head to the polls: “The Scripture says, ‘While we have time, let us do good unto all men.’ And a week from Tuesday, it will be time for us to vote.”
Like Hillary, Bill is willing to turn off the charm and ratchet up the divisiveness inside these houses of worship, such as going into a New York church in October 2000—where the pastor introduced him as part of his church’s Mobilization 2004 campaign—and accused Republicans of bearing “false witness” and being “the people of the Nine Commandments.”
The Clintons are reinforced by their certainty that they are doing God’s will: “God’s work must be our own,” Bill told a Newark congregation, and Hillary is fond of quoting John Wesley’s credo, “The world is my parish.”
Overall, Bill Clinton spoke in parishes 21 times as president, over half of which occurrences (twelve) came in election years. Hillary quickly surpassed that total in just two months in 2000, and she had not even been elected yet.
By comparison, George W. Bush spoke in only three churches during the first three years of his presidency, and these were for memorial services, not for politicking. Those three Bush appearances were half the number that Mrs. Clinton hit on Election Day morning alone.
Infuriating as this behavior may be, this is not to say that the Clintons’ faith is insincere. That said, what is certain is Mrs. Clinton’s sincere intention to use her faith to get elected. Her supporters might want to keep that in mind the next time they angrily applaud when she condemns those right-wing Christian politicians for wearing their faith on their sleeve.
Paul Kengor, author of spiritual biographies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has just published God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins, 2007). He is a professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.