Praying with Hillary


How does religion relate to presidential conduct? Every now and then, a president acts in a way that pretty clearly seems to express his religious commitments. Rarely is the expression as clear as it’s been with George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. But it was not hard to see a religious impulse at work in, for example, Jimmy Carter’s assiduous pursuit of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
With presidential candidates, of course, we can only ask questions. And, when a candidate’s religion worries some portion of the electorate, the questions tend to be unedifying. Would Jack Kennedy take orders from Rome? Would Mitt Romney take orders from Salt Lake? Would Barack Obama take orders from Jeremiah Wright?
Of greater use to to try to see the candidate’s religious background and journey (if journey there be) as a window onto his or her identity. In this regard, Hillary Clinton’s more than passing engagement in the semi-secret organization known as The Family is of more than passing interest. Yesterday this blog received a comment from Jeff Sharlet, whose book on the organization, The Family, will be out in a little over a week. Our exchange is here.
Sharlet book.jpgHaving not yet read the book, I’m not sure to what extent, if any, Sharlet ties Clinton to the Family’s right-wing political inclinations. He agrees that the thing has a fundamentally establishmentarian ethos–how the Family is dedicated to bringing Washington’s movers and shakers together. That is the source of its particular appeal to Clinton, I suspect. (It is sort of the Renaissance Weekend of American religion.) That her favorite Bible story is Esther speaks volumes: Make me the queen and I’ll save the people from the evil that threatens.
More than anything else, it is the impulse to solve problems from the top down, from the inside out, that seems at the core of Clinton’s public being. Her failed health care initiative is the case par excellence. What’s missing is the inspirational voice, the prophetic challenge, the spiritual summons. That latter–just words, she says–is, of course, Obama’s stock in trade. At bottom, they are religious opposites.
Update: My exchange with Sharlet continues in the comments to this post.