Hillary in the pulpit may seem as likely a sight to see as Mike Huckabee officiating a same-sex wedding. Democrats understand religion and politics at around the same level as Republicans get climate science.
But this Sunday, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton will share the pulpit at the D.C. church they actively attended during their time in the White House. The rare occurrence presents some opportunities for Hillary Clinton campaign to allow voters to see a genuine side of herself — as well as a chance for a Democratic candidate to meaningfully connect with people of faith.
The entire world knows Hillary Clinton, yet the American public seems to know little about why she even got involved in politics in the first place. As Bernie Sanders’ supporters love to remind folks, Hillary grew up a Republican. But that changed when her youth minister took her to see Martin Luther King Jr. in the spring of 1962 and introduced her to a Christian perspective that emphasized social justice. From that point on, everyone knows her storied rise in politics alongside her husband.
Stepping into the pulpit at Foundry United Methodist Church, just blocks from the White House, affords her the rare opportunity to tell us why “human rights are women’s rights,” yes, but also that human rights protections stem from the fact that every person on Earth is made in the image of God. Her appearance affords her the chance to tell us why our country must combat climate change, yes, but also that God’s creation groans. Hillary could help her cause to accomplish what President Obama couldn’t — pass immigration reform — not by making fun of Donald Trump, but by aligning herself and her campaign to the Christian message of welcoming the Stranger.
The New York Times reports the Clinton campaign’s answer to the “authenticity gap” is to make her show humor more. Hillary didn’t get into politics because she liked to laugh; she got into politics because of her faith-rooted drive for a more just world. But she doesn’t usually like to talk about it. In one interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, she explained, “I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves, so… a lot of the talk about and advertising about faith doesn’t come naturally to me.”
On top of that, there are other things that could contribute to Hillary’s apparent reluctance to openly emphasize her faith. As a general rule, Democrats can’t articulate the reasons why they’re both religious and supportive of issues like women’s reproductive health and same-sex marriage. Being scared of the equally militant secular left and religious right leaves a huge missed opportunity for the vast middle of churchgoing Americans with moderate political beliefs.
In her brief time on the campaign trail so far, Hillary also reportedly turned down an invitation to speak at a major gathering of Southern Baptist pastors. Why? Most likely, an ignorance of the broad common cause she could identify and trepidation at going into “enemy territory.” Yet the SBC has been a leading force advocating for immigration reform and held a conference on racial reconciliation after the recent rise in public awareness of racism in the United States.
There are good reasons for the Clinton campaign to do more religious outreach. Hillary has smart policy wonks who are mapping the “what” and seasoned political operatives who can map the “how” — but only through faith-based and values messaging can she communicate the “why” that’s been sorely lacking from her campaign.
Plus, over the last three midterm elections, the percentage of mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants and Catholics voting for Democrats has decreased. And in polling so far, Clinton’s firewall has been support among minority Democrats. A faith-rooted message would resonate among black and Hispanic democrats who statistically are much more likely to attend church. People who attend church once or more weekly are also more likely to vote than those who do so less often or never.
This Sunday could be more than just a homecoming for Hillary Clinton. Speaking from her deeply rooted faith not only allows her to speak authentically about her faith, it directly confronts the issue dogging her campaign so far: belief. Voters need to believe in Hillary Clinton for her to win. They need to believe she didn’t intend harm with her email practices. They need to believe she shares their values. Voters know she has the intellectual ability and experience. But they need to believe. And for that, Hillary must take us to church.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (@guthriegf) writes at the intersection of faith and public policy. From 2011–2015, he worked at the National Immigration Forum mobilizing Christians to advocate for the value of immigrants and immigration to America.