Monday, March 25, 2013

Religion and the Democratic front-runners

Last week, I took a look at the religious faiths of the top 5 GOP candidates (read here), and now it's time to do so for the Democratic candidates.

Thanks to their constituency, Republican candidates generally talk about their faith a lot, but there are much more relaxed demands in the Democratic party, which -- at the activist level -- often finds itself instinctively recoiling at the mixture of politics and religion.

The plain truth is that Democrats are less likely than Republicans to call themselves deeply religious and, until 2008, elites in the party had spent a few decades working up the reputation of being somewhat hostile to religion.

But, during the 2008 primary, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton urged the party to embrace religion, celebrate it, and acknowledge that faith shapes the worldviews and decisions of nearly every politician -- regardless of party.

In fact, at the time, Obama said:

"Nobody in a presidential campaign on the Democratic side in recent memory has done more to reach out to the church [than me]."

Well, Hillary (as she so often did in 2008) would probably debate that. Her outreach to the faith community was early and intense during her 2008 run.

As for 2016, if you look at the top five Democratic candidates (according to my rankings), you have three Democrats who are fluent and public about their faith -- Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren.

Meanwhile, the other, two candidates -- Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Cuomo -- tend to shy away from the topic.

So let's take a look at each of these top five candidates.

1. Hillary Clinton: Methodist

Her spiritual journey:

You can't understand Hillary's political story without understanding her faith, because so much of the latter explains her lifetime of political activism.

In her memoir, Clinton linked her Methodism back to Mr. Methodist himself, John Wesley.

As the family story goes, her father's great-grandparents heard Wesley speak in the coal-mining villages in northern England and were converted.

But by the time Hillary was born, the Rodhams were only partially observant. Hillary's dad didn't attend church, but her mother taught Sunday school.

For her part, Hillary took an early and active interest in her spiritual walk as she grew.

She attended Bible school, Sunday school, and youth group, and helped prepare the altar for Sunday's services. In the sixth grade, she was confirmed in her church, and by her freshman year in high school in the fall of 1961, was ready for the "University of Life" – the youth fellowship program.

All the while, she says, she sought to balance her conservative father's focus on self-reliance with her mother's interest in social justice.

Soon, she started reading Reinhold Niebuhr (whom Barack Obama has called his "favorite theologian") and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and was heavily influenced by both.

During high school and then as a young college student, Hillary was deeply, politically conservative, but her Methodism eventually led her to support a more activist form of government.

 In fact, in 2008, Hillary told an audience that her favorite verse comes from the epistle of James, which reads:

"Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

Throughout her time as First Lady of Arkansas; then First Lady of the U.S., senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary has been quietly observant.

While First Lady, she attended a prayer group and, later, when she won her Senate seat, became a member of a weekly Senate prayer group.

Holly Leachman, the head of the women's group whom Clinton calls "a spiritual spark plug," faxed her a daily Scripture reading or faith message through Clinton's years as first lady.

The women in the group also presented Clinton with a handmade book filled with messages, quotes, and Scripture – one of Clinton's favorite gifts of all the thousands she received as first lady, she says, and one she used often.

In fact, the prayer group Hillary attended whilst a New York Senator also included one Rick Santorum, as well as other religious and political conservatives like Sam Brownback and Sen. Mike Enzi.

To their surprise, they bonded with Hillary.

According to The Atlantic, Sam Brownback -- a deeply conservative Catholic -- apologized to Hillary for a history of ripping on the Clintons during the 1990's, and after that reconciliation, the two formed a close personal and political friendship.

Joshua Green writes about the emotional moment that led to the reconciliation.

“I came here today prepared to share about this experience in my life that has caused great suffering, the result of which has deepened my faith,” Brownback said, according to someone who watched the scene unfold.

“But I’m overcome now with only one thought.” He confessed to having hated Clinton and having said derogatory things about her. Through God, he now recognized his sin. Then he turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Clinton, will you forgive me?” Clinton replied that she would, and that she appreciated the apology.

“It was an extraordinary moment,” the member told me.

.....Brownback told me recently. “It brought me close to someone I did not ever imagine I would become close to.”

Another Christian conservative who personally apologized to Hillary for his attacks in the 1990's was David Kuo, who worked with the Bush Administration on faith-based initiatives, and later became a friend of Hillary's.

At a practical level, the most powerful testimony any Christian can give is to both ask for and extend personal forgiveness. It's what Christ offered via the cross -- forgiveness -- and what he demands from Christians.

Pride often makes it wrenchingly difficult to ask for forgiveness, but Brownback and Kuo's humility in admitting they were wrong, as well as Hillary's grace in offering forgiveness are both exemplary.

Hillary's former youth pastor, Rev. Donald Jones, told The Washington Times:

"Just in terms of her Christian commitment, I think she is one of the most authentically and deeply committed Christians I know.... you can't really understand Hillary apart from the centrality of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has affected her life."

In 2008, she told an audience at Messiah College that her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky had tested her faith.

"I don't think that I could have made my life's journey without being anchored in God's grace and without having that, you know, sense of forgiveness and unconditional love."

That being said, religious conservatives have noted her pro-choice views, and during the same forum, Newsweek's Jon Meacham squarely asked whether life begins at conception.

Hillary's response?

"I believe that the potential for life begins at conception. I am a Methodist, as you know. My church has struggled with this issue. In fact, you can look at the Methodist Book of Discipline and see the contradiction and the challenge of trying to sort that very profound question out.

But for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved. And, therefore, I have concluded, after great, you know, concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, that our task should be in this pluralistic, diverse life of ours in this nation that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision, because the alternative would be such an intrusion of government authority that it would be very difficult to sustain in our kind of open society."

"Potential for life" is an, um, interesting way of putting it.

In a 2008 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, she made a personal confession of faith in Christ, but as always, put it in the context of spurring one on to good works.

"We look at the roots of our faith, our personal relationship with God, obviously through Jesus Christ which gives us a sense that we're not only saved and that we're called and that we are given much and therefore much is required."

She continued.

"[My faith] has sustained me, it has informed me, it has saved me, it has chided me, it has challenged me, and I don't know who I would be or where I would be had I not been given that gift, those years of tutelage through my faith."

That faith helped her deal with the Monica Lewinsky affair, and here's a pretty fascinating anecdote.

During that time, according to The Christian Science Monitor, her former youth pastor sent her a sermon by Paul Tillich called, "Your are accepted." (read the part about Bill Clinton that I bolded).

"[The sermon's] premise is how sin and grace exist through life in constant interplay; neither is possible without the other. The mystery of grace is that you cannot look for it," Clinton writes.

Then she quotes from the Tillich sermon: "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It happens; or it does not happen."

Five days after he sent the letter, [Hillary's former youth pastor Don] Jones says he received a handwritten reply from Bill Clinton saying, "Thank you, Don, for sending Hillary that wonderful sermon by Paul Tillich," and then, "Thank you for being her friend."

"That's exactly what I intended to have happen," Jones says, "because I sent it really for Bill, more than for Hillary."

But Jones's missive clearly had cut to Hillary Clinton's core as well.

"Grace happens," she wrote in her memoirs, following on the Tillich quote. "Until it did, my main job was to put one foot in front of the other and get through another day."

Michael Gerson, an evangelical former Bush official, writes of her "sincere liberal Protestantism," and noted that Hillary seems to have a far closer relationship with her faith than many in the Democratic party.

Republicans are accustomed to Democrats who are either frankly secular -- Howard Dean once asserted, "My religion doesn't inform my public policy" -- or so uncomfortable with religious language that, were the sound on the television switched off, you'd think they were admitting a sexual vice instead of affirming their deepest beliefs.

Yet Hillary finds herself at odds with her church on some social hot-buttons.

The United Methodist church officially opposes same-sex marriages, claims that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and refuses funds to any group that promotes "the acceptance of homosexuality."

Hillary, of course, recently came out in support of same-sex marriage. She's also at odds with the church over capital punishment, which she supports and the church opposes.

Having said that, theological liberalism has crept into the American Methodist church and there's currently a fierce war between more conservative and liberal factions.

Last year, Delegates at the General Conference for The United Methodist Church affirmed that the practice of homosexuality was "incompatible with Christian teaching", although the relatively close 60%-40% vote showed just how thoroughly liberalism has advanced within the church.

That being said, The Blaze notes that the brand of Methodism that's rapidly growing overseas is distinctly conservative, while the more liberal Methodist Church in the United States has seen its numbers fall.

Methodist presidents:

James Polk, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, and George W. Bush.

James Polk. This is the man historians are talking about when they say "President Polk."

Good quote from a Methodist: John Wesley:

"Vice does not lose its character by becoming fashionable."

2. Vice-President Joe Biden: Catholic

His spiritual path:

When Biden was young, he'd look from his bedroom window and gaze upon a stately Catholic boys school, which he called "my Oz".

Catholicism was ubiquitous in his hometown, and in his book, he seems to indicate that the culture of Catholicism  meant as much to him as the doctrine, although it's hard to imagine him saying it that way and he'd probably object.


"My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It's not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It's the culture."

Of course, a cultural connection can often seem more emotional than a doctrinal one, but it's not totally clear which Biden savors more.

During high school, Biden entertained the idea of going to a Baltimore seminary, but his mom shook the notion from him.

His faith wasn't really challenged until tragedy struck and his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.

"I never doubted that there was a God, but I was angry with God," he says. "I was very self-centered: How could God do this to me?"

But Biden finally made his peace, and continued his Catholic walk.

Whereas some Democratic politicians instinctively reel at the idea of fusing one's religious and political beliefs, Biden is clearly comfortable with the marriage, and continually miffed at the notion that his support for abortion makes him a bad Catholic.

In 2005, he said, "the next Republican that tells me I'm not religious, I'm going to shove my rosary down their throat," and in a 2008 interview with the Delaware New Journal, he claimed that "one of my avocations is theology", and in typical Biden fashion, launched into an extended discussion of it.

As a supporter of abortion, Biden has had to fend off continual attacks about the veracity of his faith.

During the 2012 Veep debate, he gave the usual defense: he's personally opposed, but doesn't want to impose his religion's definition on others.

"I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception. That’s the Church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews....I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court — I’m not going to interfere with that.

If you note, Biden goes where Hillary wouldn't. When she was asked if life begins at conception, Hillary would only go so far as to say "the potential for life".

Regardless, he does stand firm in his opposition to partial birth abortion, except to save the life of the mother.

"This is an easy one for me. This is absolutely easy for me. Because to me, there isn't any doubt there's a human life and being. The fact that it may be deformed, the fact that it may have one arm, the fact that the child may be mongoloid, the fact that that boom boom, whatever. To me, I don't have any problems saying you outlaw that procedure unless it's going to jeopardize the mother."

He finished by saying:

"As a Catholic, I'm a John XXIII guy, I'm not a Pope John Paul guy."

How Catholics vote:

In 2012, white Catholics continued to flee from the Democratic party. Mitt Romney blew out Barack Obama, 59%-40%, with the group.

Among all Catholics, though, Obama nipped Romney, 50%-48%. The big difference? Hispanic Catholics are heavily Democratic.

The question is whether a) Biden can improve on Obama's 40% with white Catholics and b)  rack up Obama-esque numbers with Catholic Hispanics.

This is pure speculation, but my guess is that he could do a bit better than Obama with white Catholics, but not quite as well as Obama with Hispanic Catholics.

Catholic presidents:

John F. Kennedy Jr.

JFK was the country's only Catholic president

Good quote from a Catholic: Thomas a Kempis

"Bear the cross cheerfully, and it will bear you."

3. Andrew Cuomo: Catholic

His spiritual path:

The story here is that there's not much of a story, because Cuomo is famously quiet about his religious faith -- unlike his dad, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Don't take it from me. Take it from Andrew himself. He told reporters in 2011, "My religion is a private matter, and it is not something that I discuss in a political arena."

If he runs for president, we'll see if he opens up a bit. As I mentioned earlier, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama embraced faith in 2008, and also chided the party for failing to articulate and acknowledge religion's place in life and politics.

Cuomo, though, seems to be a blast from the 1980's past, but it's somewhat understandable that Cuomo would rather not publicly talk about his Catholicism.

He's currently living with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee -- a spiritual infraction that led a top Vatican adviser to suggest that the governor be denied communion. Cuomo is also divorced, supports abortion, and backs gay marriage. Vatican III might find a place for that, but it seems we're centuries away from that, and Cuomo's political moment is now.

Further, The New York Times writes that Cuomo in private is very much like Cuomo, in public, when it comes to religion.

Unlike his father, who relishes a good theological debate and as governor was fond of quoting the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on the nature of evil, the younger Mr. Cuomo is said to be less verbal on the subject of the soul.

Political junkies are always looking for hints of a particular candidacy (Haley Barbour famously joked that you should track his waistline to get his true thoughts on a run), and my guess is that Cuomo will start to open up a bit more about his faith if he's going to run for president.

So here's a forumla: More Faith Talk + Marriage to Sandra Lee = Presidential run.

The scuttlebutt is that neither Cuomo nor Lee see much point in getting married right now, but it seems they'd have to get hitched for a presidential run.

Past Catholic presidents:

John F. Kennedy.

JFK sits alone as the country's only Catholic president

Good quote from a Catholic: G.K. Chesterton

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people."

4. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Catholic

By now, regular readers know that, if Hillary doesn't run, Gillibrand has strong darkhorse potential.

While there's a relative dearth of information on her spiritual path, we do know a few things about it.

She considers herself a "practicing Catholic" and attended the Catholic prep school, Academy of the Holy Names, before heading off to Dartmouth for a degree in Asian studies.

During college, she visited China and, according to The New York Times, came home "deeply concerned with the question of religious and cultural autonomy for Tibetans," but there's no evidence that she herself incorporated Buddhism into her spiritual life.

When it came time to marry, she married in the Catholic Church, and credits her political career to her faith.

“I think faith transformed my interest in politics into a calling for service,” she says. “I think it’s metaphorical ... to actually raise your voice. But you have to really fight hard."

She carried on with that theme while recounting her decision in an interview with Elle.

"I want to do more. If I died and went to heaven right now, God would say to me, 'You should have done more'."

That's about as specific as she's been in public about her personal faith, but Vogue notes that she seems at-ease courting Democrats in black churches.

Apparently, she can deliver a pretty mean sermon.

Gillibrand follows the Reverend Robert Lowe and, to my surprise, keys off his over-the-top style and gets a little gospel-preachy herself, talking about the Joshua generation not being able to get into the Promised Land, risin’ up with one voice and shoutin’ down the walls of Jericho.

Before she is done there are a couple of shout-outs to Gillibrand from the pews—“That’s right!”—and she leaves the stage to a very warm round of applause. Our next stop is the famous Mother AME Zion church in Harlem, where a very similar scene plays out, Gillibrand thundering from the pulpit with even more gusto.

Interestingly, she told Vogue that her childhood-self always thought about being a preacher, but since she was Catholic, that was out of the question because "they don't let women speak."

Still, Gillibrand didn't have much sympathy for the Catholic church after Anthony Picarello -- the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- pushed for a religious exception to ObamaCare's contraceptive mandate during the February 2012 battle between the Obama Administration and the Church.

Gillibrand blasted Picarello in a press release:

“I am dumbfounded that in the year 2012 we still have to fight over birth control. It is sad that we have to stand here yet again to fight back against another overreach and intrusion into women’s lives. This is what it is – a political overreach to roll back access to birth control – not a religious issue."

It's not too surprising that Gillibrand objected to Picarello, but it was surprising how little sensitivity she showed to her church and to those who disapproved of the mandate out of religious concern.

Gillibrand also raised Catholic ire when she sponsored the controversial "Every Child Deserves a Family Act", which would prohibit federal funding for adoption agencies that denied potential LGBT parents from adopting. Gillibrand claimed the law wouldn't stop private charities from exercising their religious discretion, but opponents worried it was a step in that direction.

Gillibrand has also been a forceful advocate for other LGBT issues, such as same-sex marriage and repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

That's certainly great politics for a Democratic primary, but she runs the risk of incurring a public chiding from the Catholic Church if she were to advance too far in the presidential process. Having said that, both Biden and Cuomo have taken a lashing from their Church, so that gives Gillibrand some cover.

Past Catholic presidents:

John F. Kennedy.

JFK sailed alone as the only Catholic president

Good quote from a Catholic: Thomas a Kempis:

"Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world."

5. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Methodist

Like Hillary, Warren's politics have been heavily influenced by her Methodism.

In a chat with E.J. Dionne, she quoted two passages from Matthew 25 that particularly inform her worldview.

"Truly, I say to you. As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."


"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes, and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me."

Warren explained:

"Those who gave meat to the hungry, those who gave water to the thirsty, those who welcomed the stranger in, were the ones that God welcomed to heaven. ... It stresses the importance of community, because it says, in fact, it’s about action and it’s about action together."

She repeated Matthew 25:40 in her spirited Democratic convention speech last year, and if she sounds awfully familiar with Scripture, it's because she is. While living in Texas (imagine that, Elizabeth Warren in Texas!), she was Methodist Sunday school teacher.

Throughout her career, Warren's wed her populism with her Methodism, and Jim Wallis -- the fiscally liberal founder of Sojourners -- is a big fan.

Wallis is particularly fond of her war on big banks.

"She makes the urgent case for reform with the compelling analysis of a top economist, the family values of a grandmother, and the moral arguments of a person of faith. The sins of the financial world have become both a moral, and even religious, issue from the perspective of the Methodist tradition 'which still shapes me'."

Past Methodist presidents:

James Polk, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, and George W. Bush.

The only William McKinley who was ever presidetn

 Good quote by a Methodist: John Wesley:

"Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God."

All right, folks.

That wraps up our look at the religious faiths of the top Republican and Democratic contenders. Again, you can read about the GOP candidates here.