- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is more devout than public perception has allowed, her Methodism carried close to her heart alongside her political interests, even if she is almost reluctant to talk about it.

“Just in terms of her Christian commitment, I think she is one of the most authentically and deeply committed Christians I know,” said her former youth pastor, the Rev. Donald Jones, a 77-year-old retired professor of social ethics at Drew University in New Jersey who is her longtime friend.

“You can’t really understand Hillary apart from the centrality of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has affected her life. I think more than any other influence, it’s her Christian faith that has shaped the core of her character.”

Mrs. Clinton, who has downplayed religion for much of her campaign, called her Christian journey a “serious search” as she opened up at a recent Compassion Forum at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College.

“I worry that you have to walk the walk of faith,” she said at the forum, where she offered a glimpse of the role that faith has played in her political life. “Talking about it is important because it’s important to share that experience. But I also believe that, you know, faith is just — it’s grace. It’s love. It’s mystery. It’s provocation. It is everything that makes life and its purpose meaningful as a human being.

“We have created this democracy where we choose our leaders, and we have to be more mindful of how important and serious a business this is,” she said.

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  • Exit polls during the presidential primaries show that the New York senator seems to do well with religious Democrats and church attendees, along with white and Hispanic Catholics and Protestants. But in a Pew Forum survey last summer, Mrs. Clinton received a very low rating when pollsters asked likely voters how religious they perceived the candidates to be.

    “There were people in the Clinton campaign who were just flabbergasted,” said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Somehow, many Americans have developed this image of Mrs. Clinton as largely a very secular politician.”

    “I think there is plenty of evidence that she is a woman of strong faith, but a lot of people don’t believe that and see this as opportunism,” said Mr. Green.

    Mrs. Clinton has written about her faith in two books and has attended Methodist churches for most of her life. At a Sojourners forum sponsored by CNN in June, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that the power of her faith sustained her during former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity.

    “I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought,” she said at the forum, also attended by her Democratic rivals John Edwards, who has since dropped out of the race, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. “I am not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith.”

    As first lady, Mrs. Clinton joined prayer partners from local churches who visited to pray with her regularly. She and Mr. Clinton regularly attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington when they lived at the White House.

    As senator, she has attended a bipartisan breakfast prayer group with other members of Congress. In Chappaqua, N.Y., where she and Mr. Clinton moved after his presidency, she is known to occasionally attend the United Methodist Church of Mount Kisco.

    Mrs. Clinton also has continued to pair her faith with her politics. In late 2006, when she began to launch her presidential campaign, she hired a faith guru as part of an election strategy geared at attracting evangelical and religious voters. Democrats, said Mr. Green, have recognized that in the 2000 and 2004 elections, they ceded the religious or faith vote to their Republican counterparts. But no more.

    “This election cycle is unusual,” Mr. Green said. “The Democratic candidates have been much more vocal about their faith and how it’s connected to their politics. The volume of religious rhetoric is much higher than it was four years ago. Republicans, ironically, are probably talking about it a little less, although we’ve had plenty of discussion of faith and values in the Republican primaries.”

    Conservatives have attacked Mrs. Clinton on faith. In July, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote that Mrs. Clinton was “not a person who believes in the central tenets of Christianity.”

    Yet, as her detractors have said, she has quietly spoken out when appropriate. In November at a Global AIDS summit at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., — an evangelical megachurch led by “The Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren — she received a standing ovation for a speech in which she quoted Scripture about faith and acknowledged the Golden Rule.

    Whether that will help her with primary voters remains to be seen.

    “I don’t think that in a Democratic primary, that people are voting or not voting for her on the basis of her faith. I don’t hear that she talks about it that much,” said the Rev. Dale S. Kuehne, an associate professor of politics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “It might be more of an issue in the general election, but so far, she has largely kept it out” of the debate.

    “I don’t sense that it’s an issue that has traction among voters,” said Mr. Kuehne, pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church in Nashua, N.H.

    “I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of faith of any of the candidates. As a nation, we are becoming more and more thin theologically. But I think that as long as you profess a belief in God, and it appears to be a Judeo-Christian God, I don’t know that people will want to have a discussion beyond that. I don’t know that voters really want to … discern authenticity of faith.”

    He added that Mrs. Clinton avoided saying too much about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the firebrand pastor of Mr. Obama and the object of much criticism for numerous racist, anti-American and conspiratorial remarks from the pulpit.

    “Hillary invited the press to have a theological discussion when she said that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright ‘would not be my pastor,’ but nobody took her up on it,” Mr. Kuehne added. “Nobody bothered to say: Who is your pastor? And what does that mean, and how does that reflect who you are as a person?”

    Mr. Jones said he thinks Mrs. Clinton is largely misunderstood on the issue of religion. He thinks that some in the press have a “thin” understanding “of the meaning of Christian faith.”

    Mrs. Clinton, he added, has been a lifelong scholar and that knowledge would significantly inform her presidency.

    “I think her Christian understanding of the human condition is an influence,” he said. “When Hillary has talked about her sense of social responsibility, it’s in part her sense of her understanding of her Christian faith and her commitment to improving the world through social action.”

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