THE BLOG
08/14/2016 11:03 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton's Religious Background and the 2016 Presidential Election

Hillary Clinton's religious background is more straightforward than Donald Trump's (on Trump's religious background, see last month's blog post), but just as revealing of how well she will likely do this November with churchgoing voters. This is an especially important consideration in the part of the country located between Pittsburgh and the prairies, both because the presidential election will likely be decided there, and because it's a place with many churchgoing people.

Like Donald Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton was an early baby boomer. She was born in 1947, the second year of the boom. As a result, she, like Trump, grew up at a time when religious affiliation and weekly observance reached all-time highs in modern American history. Clinton, however, had a closer connection to her church and faith than did Trump.

Clinton's parents were Methodists, and they and their three children belonged to First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois, the Chicago suburb in which Hillary Rodham grew up. All the indications are that the Rodhams, Hillary included, were closely connected to that church. Her father was a devout Methodist and her mother a Sunday school teacher at First United. Hillary was confirmed there, went to summer bible camps, was part of the youth group, and occasionally helped clean the church organ. For her, First United seems to have been a place she very much enjoyed going and being a part of. The moderate religiosity of the 1950's and early '60's were very much in evidence at First United then, and seems to have resonated strongly with Hillary Clinton.

Helping making that experience even more formative was the close connection she formed during 1961-'63 with the youth pastor at First United Methodist, a man named Don Jones. At that time, he taught a kind of class for his approximately sixty students called "The University of Life." The basic idea was to expose a virtually all-white, comfortably middle-class group of young people to the complexities and social problems that lay beyond the borders of staunchly Republican and mostly prosperous Park Ridge. Among the expeditions Jones led were ones to the heavily black South Side of Chicago, to witness firsthand the hardships of the urban poor, and to debates with atheists and a conversation with a rabbi. In some ways most memorable for Clinton, Jones took the group to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak when he visited Chicago. Jones also arranged for the teen-aged Hillary to meet King and shake his hand. Having these kinds of experiences through church were very much part of the Methodist tradition. The faith's founder, John Wesley, emphasized experience over the details of doctrine. That faith tradition tends to support not just a life of prayer but also of socially useful works. As a result, there has long been a strong Social Gospel side to the Methodist Church, and that appears to have shaped Hillary Clinton's outlook on life greatly. She seems to have taken the notion of Christian mission and service to the world (as part of the process of personal salvation) very seriously, and still does.

What has made her connection to religion more complicated was her decision to marry Bill, who is a lifelong Southern Baptist. That decision didn't create a lot of doctrinal conflicts because Methodists don't heavily emphasize matters of doctrine. Her interfaith marriage complicated her religious life somewhat, though, because it led her to move from suburban Chicago to the very different Little Rock, Arkansas, and because her husband's faith and values background differed from her own. Hillary Clinton continued to attend a Methodist church (First United Methodist) when she moved to Little Rock, and Chelsea was confirmed there. Hillary Clinton belongs to a Methodist church in New York today.

What, then, does this kind of religious background tell us about Hillary Clinton's appeal to voters this fall, in the pivotal Midwestern states especially? First, that her connection to mainstream religious belief and observance is lifelong and very natural. Second, that older churchgoing voters who remember the era, theologically speaking, in which Clinton grew up, will likely respond positively to that side of her. Third, that she will likely struggle with the more strongly religious and the most secular, both of which have seen their numbers expand since the mid-1970's. The United States is a more polarized place than it was during Clinton's formative years, and the current state of American religion very much reflects that. Most white evangelicals will likely respond coolly to her middle-of-the-road faith tradition and liberal version of the Social Gospel. Most of the most secular voters will find her lifelong commitment to Methodism a quality somehow out of place in a modern, liberal feminist. But in her native (and electorally crucial) Midwest, where moderate religiosity remains strong, Hillary Clinton's religious background seems likely to be a positive factor in persuading swing voters to support her.