Hillary Clinton’s Christianity, which she wielded as a political weapon in her 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, largely has been missing in this year’s election.
She hasn’t hidden her Methodist upbringing, but scholars say it’s not front and center. And where in the past she used it as a window into her character, this year she’s deployed it as a debate tactic to push criminal justice reform and other policy goals.
Church attendance also has been all but absent from Mrs. Clinton’s schedule, except when she’s turned up behind a pulpit to stump for votes, particularly in predominantly black churches, where her appearances focus largely on how she intends to work with religious leaders to accomplish shared political objectives.
Since 2008 she’s also abandoned traditional Christian positions on issues such as same-sex marriage, coming in favor of the practice in 2013 after years of opposing it.
The reason for the shift, analysts say, is twofold. Mrs. Clinton is taking on an opponent, Republican Donald Trump, who is seen as one of the most nonreligious presidential candidates in modern history. Pew polling from earlier this year found that just 30 percent of American voters say they consider Mr. Trump religious, while 48 percent said the same about Mrs. Clinton.
Perhaps more importantly, she now leads a party that, among its white base, if not its core black and Hispanic members, has become an increasingly secular institution. Recent polling shows the Democratic Party includes in its ranks nearly four times as many atheists and agnostics as the GOP.
“She’s in a difficult position in terms of articulating her faith because she faces a fractious Democratic coalition. We are in a moment in our country’s life where the coalition the Democrats have had to cobble together is really conflicted with respect to matters of religion,” said Joseph Prud’homme, director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Culture at Washington College.
“She has to speak enough to reassure the conservative elements within the African-American church. She also has to be sensitive to the rising rates of evangelism within the American Hispanic population,” he continued. “But she’s in that broader context where she has an increasingly secular base. We see this with millennials, and we see this very much with those who were supportive of” Sen. Bernard Sanders, Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic presidential primary opponent.
But as has long been the case with the Clintons, the fight against Mr. Sanders showcased how the former first lady and her husband, along with their political partners, aren’t shy about using religion for political benefit. Hacked Democratic National Committee emails released over the summer showed how Clinton allies in the DNC plotted to use Mr. Sanders’ rumored atheism against him in conservative states like Kentucky. (Mr. Sanders has since denied being an atheist.)
For the Clintons, such maneuvering isn’t new.
In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late 1990s, both Mrs. Clinton and then-President Bill Clinton were seen on an almost-weekly basis emerging from Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church, Bibles in hand. Mrs. Clinton returned to the church for its 200th anniversary last September in what appears to have been the last service she attended outside of political campaigning.
Just as she’s done this presidential cycle, Mrs. Clinton also made the rounds at black churches during her 2000 Senate run.
“The way she politicked and literally campaigned in New York churches in 2000 was unbelievable. She would go in there, and these were blatant political rallies,” said Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College and author of the book “God and Hillary Clinton.”
“The Clintons are masters at this,” Mr. Kengor added.
While campaigning in Iowa in January, Mrs. Clinton answered a question about religion at length and spoke of the principles of openness and acceptance she’s taken from her religion — a clear reference to her newfound position on same-sex marriage.
“I do believe that, in many areas, judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith,” she said. “I have been very disappointed and sorry that Christianity, which has such great love at its core, is sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly.”
Such an approach, specialists say, has been used by Mrs. Clinton to justify her switch on gay marriage and other issues of great controversy in the church.
“Ten years ago, I could not have imagined Hillary Clinton wanting to force a Baptist grandma … who owns a bakery, forcing her to make a wedding cake that goes against her religious convictions. But now I could easily picture Hillary doing that,” Mr. Kengor said. “I don’t know if that’s an ideological evolution or if it’s political. I think it’s probably a little bit of both.”