THE BLOG
07/12/2016 05:20 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2017

Clinton, Trump and the Coming Contest of Faith

Religion has been at rest of late in the 2016 presidential race. This is likely to change.

Not long ago there were a dozen outspoken faith-based Republican candidates keeping the religious fires burning in American politics. None of them remain. Only Donald Trump is left standing on the political right, and religion is far from his native language. Hillary Clinton, however, is famously fluent in matters of faith and her political camp smells blood. This chasm of faith between the two candidates may well revive religion as a theme in the looming general election.

A signal of this possibility appeared in the opposition strategy book recently stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee by Russian hackers and then distributed online. Revealed in its pages are plans to portray Trump as a man with "no core" who is "loyal only to himself" and a "liar." These are nearly religious allegations, and so it is reasonable to expect that Democrats would use religion to paint their disparaging portrait of the Republican frontrunner.

Trump has also signaled his intent to engage on the matter of religion. In a recent meeting with evangelical leaders, he fired an opening salvo: "We don't know anything about Hillary in terms of religion. Now, she's been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there's nothing out there. It's going to be an extension of Obama but it's going to be worse, because with Obama you had your guard up. With Hillary, you don't, and it's going to be worse."

Yet what promises a contest of faith is Hillary Clinton's religious zeal. She is certainly among the most faith-based politicians of our generation. This assertion rankles her opponents and can sometimes irritate the secular edge of her supporters, but it is true nevertheless.

She was shaped by a distinctly Methodist social gospel from her earliest days. During her high school years, a youth minister famously introduced her to Beat poetry, art house films, and the writings of non-traditional theologians. He thought nothing of suggesting both a Methodist devotional and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, both The Bible and profane agnostic Saul Alinsky's Reveille for Radicals. This literary diet and a chance to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1962 set young Hillary's social conscience aflame.

She carried her youth minister's version of the Methodist social gospel to Wellesley, to Yale, and into marriage to the Baptist Bill Clinton. Yet by the time she became the first lady of Arkansas, some thought her religion more "social" than "gospel." She was plagued by a perception that she "had no religion" and was, in truth, "a godless liberal."

These suspicions followed her into the White House in 1993. Ironically, she was also criticized for welcoming religious leaders of nearly every stripe to the "renewal" gatherings she convened. She was, she said, in search of "meaning." This led to trouble. Perhaps her most embarrassing mistake as first lady was allowing spiritualist Jean Houston to lead her into discussions with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Such missteps obscured the fact that Hillary Clinton was serious about religion, was well-versed in the Bible and Methodist lore, and grew her politics from a conscientious spirituality. Later, in the Senate, she thought nothing of taking Republicans to task for violating the ethics of Jesus. Friends recounted how casually she invoked the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. She was a frequent guest at conferences sponsored by Sojourner's, a respected voice of the religious left.

She comes to the 2016 general election, then, a woman adept at religious discussion, polished in religious proclamation, and seasoned by decades of religious pursuit. Donald Trump can boast none of these and so must prepare himself for heated battle on unfamiliar ground.

Yet, as Trump's campaign managers will surely advise, Hillary Clinton is also religiously vulnerable. She has reversed herself on numerous religiously-charged political issues--like the Defense of Marriage Act, which her husband signed into law and which she once defended with quotations from the Bible. She has also claimed that religion informs her politics, including her view of abortion, same-sex marriage, and her unwavering support for Planned Parenthood.

Trump might press the case that Clinton's faith is little more than mystical sanction for her own ambitions. He might assert that it has proven no antidote to the "sleaze factor" Trump mentions so often. He might also claim that she is out of step with the faith of the American people.

Religion is not dead in the 2016 presidential election. It does not even slumber. It has been waiting for less vital matters to leave center stage. Now, a contest of faith will become part of the broader contest for the presidency of the United States.