On Sunday, April 13th, the Democratic Presidential candidates celebrated the Lord’s Day by participating in a “Compassion Summit” at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
In the course of the discussion, moderator Campbell Brown asked Senator Hillary Clinton about her intimate encounters with the Divine.
BROWN: Let's talk about your faith. And we warned people the questions tonight would be pretty personal. So I want to ask you. You said in an interview last year that you believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. And you have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions. Share some of those occasions with us.
CLINTON: You know, I have, ever since I've been a little girl, felt the presence of God in my life. And it has been a gift of grace that has, for me, been incredibly sustaining. But, really, ever since I was a child, I have felt the enveloping support and love of God and I have had the experiences on many, many occasions where I felt like the Holy Spirit was there with me as I made a journey.
From most commentators, Hillary received high marks for her thoughtful, surprisingly intimate answers to such questions. She seemed oddly more sincere and engaged in talking about faith than she does when she drones on, insufferably, in her robotic rants about policy.
Nevertheless, the generally positive reaction to her comments raises obvious questions about faith, Democrats and double standards.
Imagine that George W. Bush told a public forum that he had “felt the enveloping support and love of God” since childhood, and that on “many, many occasions” he “felt like the Holy Spirit was there with me.”
It’s not hard to imagine the derisive tabloid headlines: “Bush: God Is With Me” or “Prez Sees Spirits” or “W. Talks About His Imaginary Friend.” Howard Dean might comment: “It sounds like Bush is once again saying that he talks to God, so we better watch out. The last time that happened, he took us to a war based on false intelligence.”
Meanwhile, a few days after the get-together in Pennsylvania, the Seattle City Schools cooperated in releasing thousands of students from class and bussing them downtown to listen the largely unintelligible (but very charming) ramblings of the Dalai Lama addressing a huge crown in a basketball arena. The “strict separationists” who usually pitch tantrums at any introduction of religious ideas in government classrooms, somehow winked and shrugged at the use of school time and resources to expose students to the world’s most prominent Buddhist monk.
Why is it less controversial when liberals talk about their religious outlook than it is for conservatives to speak about our faith?
And why can a revered Buddhist address school kids without controversy, when a comparably devout Christian figure surely would draw objection? The answer to both questions involves perceived threat.
Secularists and non-believers don’t feel threatened in the least by Buddhism. It’s a withering faith-tradition, with few converts anywhere in the world outside of Hollywood and academia. According to Phillip Jenkins, Professor of Religious Studies at Penn State, by the year 2050 there will be fewer Buddhists in the world than Pentecostal Christians (just one of the growing subsets of Evangelical Christianity). Buddhism remains a gentle, exotic and largely irrelevant faith in the United States, and a retreating civilization around the world.
Christianity, on the other hand, seems unmistakably vital, aggressive, powerful and influential, as the recent visit of the Pope demonstrated in unmistakable terms. For those who distrust religious enthusiasm, and want a minimum of challenge or interference in their secular lives, Christianity presents a direct and compelling challenge.
By the same token, no one objects to Hillary’s God-talk because, in essence, nobody fully believes it. Her frequent encounters with the Holy Spirit sound no more formidable than Dennis Kucinich’s sighting of a UFO (in the company of Shirley McLaine – now that’s a problem).
As for Hillary, she can’t point to a single issue in which her supposedly “deep commitment to my Methodist faith” actually shaped her thinking, beyond a very bland and generalized concern for the poor as “the least among us.” She doesn’t scare non-believers because all the religious overtones in her speeches and interviews can’t erase the overwhelming impression they receive that “she’s one of us” – and her positions on abortion, homosexuality, stem cells, and most church-state issues further reassure them that she’s still on their side on the culture war.
Usually, it’s considered a good thing if an individual demonstrates fervent and life-changing religiosity, or if a particular faith has seen vast increases in numerical strength because of its passion and vibrancy.
When it comes to the secular establishment that dominates most American Institutions, however, they’d prefer the sort of faith that makes fewer demands and draws fewer converts, and look more kindly on a religion that’s dwindling than a church that’s clearly on the March.
It’s also easy to understand why those who warn against imminent “theocracy” feel far more comfortable with a politician whose well-advertised interaction with the Holy Spirit no one in the country seems to take too seriously.