In a June 15 interview with the New York Times, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say when asked which book had been most influential to her:
At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.
It’s a softball question, so it could be all too easy to brush off her softball answer with Gawker’s follow-up: “Sure, sure. How do you feel about bald eagles, though?” But let’s face it, even as canned answers go, that was pretty bad. Bad enough to make me a hair skeptical as to whether or not I’m supposed to be excited about Candidate and President Clinton. And that was before her interview on the Daily Show a few weeks later, where she all but announced that she was running.
Whether or not the Bible really is Hillary Clinton’s biggest intellectual influence, this is the answer a generic Republican presidential candidate gives. And they give it because the Bible is the only book a Republican can call their favorite without offending the religionists that are at the core of their party.
And while her answer may not have offended the far right — though it’s unclear if anyone who thinks the Bible is the most important influence on their life is going to vote for a candidate named Clinton — she offended me. And here’s why. Her answer was either craven, defensive, intellectually-empty politics at a time when we need newer, bigger ideas, or worse yet, it was an honest answer indicative of a public servant with seriously problematic and contradictory views on citizenship, power and morality.
Hillary Clinton has a chance to be different, and she’s already blowing it
Let’s first consider the very likely possibility that Hillary Clinton’s answer was bs.
When she officially announces her candidacy, Mrs. Clinton will be the strongest non-incumbent presidential candidate since Eisenhower across just about every metric we use to handicap our political horse races.
Additionally, thanks to the GOP’s failure to learn much from the last two elections, and its inability to compromise its ethnically problematic values when it comes to immigration (and women, and gays, and pretty much everybody else), she will have a built-in advantage in the Electoral College that surpasses the ones President Obama enjoyed in his two campaigns.
This doesn’t mean that the 2016 election cycle has to be boring. On the contrary, it means that Hillary Clinton may be the first presidential candidate in a very long time who can be a real person and still win.
For the next two years, the American people will pay close attention to every single word that comes out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. Then, barring something truly disastrous on her part (à la Rick Perry), they will elect her President of the United States. While she can’t burn a flag and get away with it, there are a lot of things she can say that other candidates simply can’t because it would be too risky. Not coincidentally, those things are, in many cases, things the American people need to hear. This should be good news for us: Hillary Clinton has the luxury of being able to be the kind of candidate everyone says they want. She can treat voters like adults instead of lying to them about things that don’t matter, like her favorite book. In fact, she may even benefit politically by doing so, setting herself apart as the leader she claims to be, in contrast to whichever clearly phony challenger the GOP throws her way. Instead, she’s sounding all too familiar, and that troubles me.
Take electoral reform. In a speech last August, Mrs. Clinton slammed voter ID laws and the long lines seen in majority-minority precincts on Election Day 2012. That’s great, but playing defense on voter ID and voting machine allocation are small ideas when it comes to reforming an electoral system that, if implemented in a developing democracy, probably wouldn’t pass muster with an American election observer. Repeating those ideas adds nothing to our poorly developed national conversation concerning how we select our representatives. Mrs. Clinton has no doubt heard arguments concerning universal voter registration, democracy vouchers and other improvements on the way we handle our elections – she may even privately endorse some of them. She’s going to talk a lot over the course of the next two years about how our system of government needs fundamental changes in order to modernize for the 21st Century; I’ll be more impressed – and pleasantly surprised – if she gets real about what those changes are.
Or what about foreign policy, which is supposed to be her best case for the presidency? In the aforementioned appearance on the Daily Show, the woman who until recently was America’s top diplomat got her chance to talk about impediments to American diplomacy. Her diagnosis of the problem? We “have not been telling our story well,” and we need to “get back to” telling it. She then said that it was a mistake to “[withdraw] from the information arena,” implying that if only we met Russian propaganda in places like Ukraine with propaganda of our own, à la the Cold War, we’d have more respect abroad.
But there’s another problem with the argument. Mrs. Clinton was just our Secretary of State – and a rather hawkish one at that. If America’s international messaging has gone awry, why didn’t she fix it while she was foreign-policy-messenger-in-chief?
There are more nuanced, more serious answers to our foreign policy dilemmas, and Hillary Clinton is in a unique position to provide them. Either she knows more than she’s letting on and she’s treating us like children, or she doesn’t, and we’ve got bigger issues to deal with. Many of our leaders – certainly not all – have more knowledge and insight than the liberty, freedom and generic goodness mad-lib we get at Miss America pageants. Hillary Clinton is one of the most well-travelled, well-connected people in the world; it’s obvious when she’s holding back. (To her credit, the extended, online version of the interview includes an unaired, detailed exchange concerning the mechanics of Israel-Palestine negotiations, but the conversation was still devoid of vision and solutions.)
I know, I know, Mrs. Clinton is worried that she might repeat the mistakes of 2008, when she assumed she was inevitable and got caught off-guard by an underdog who outworked her. But she currently looks so concerned about underestimating her opponent(s) at the outset that she’s trying to run out the clock with more than two years left to go. If Clinton spends that long refusing to dig in when it comes to the big ideas surrounding American governance, she will be transparently flimsy as a candidate and vulnerable to questions concerning her credibility. Even if they don’t sink her candidacy, those questions will affect her ability to govern. Perhaps just as distressing, the American people will have missed an opportunity to be addressed by their leader as if they are a country that deserves their leader’s full attention.
When Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy, the first question she should be asked is whether or not there’s an issue she cares about strongly enough to lose the election over. I care less about what the answer is so long as it’s genuine.
God is a flip-flopper, and a terrible policy wonk
But what if the Bible was her real answer? What if I’m getting all worked up and idealistic over intellectual honesty in the public sphere when Mrs. Clinton was, in fact, being completely honest?
This would be worse than if she were lying, because it would mean that she isn’t cold and calculating, but that instead she is anachronistic and unfit for leadership in the 21st Century.
For a long time, Hillary Clinton’s consideration of politics’ relationship with religion has been murky at best. As profiled in Mother Jones back in 2007, “Clinton’s God talk is more complicated—and more deeply rooted—than either fans or foes would have it, a revelation not just of her determination to out-Jesus the GOP, but of the powerful religious strand in her own politics.” She has strong ties to The Family, a secretive organization – bordering on cult – whose membership is primarily, but not exclusively, limited to the Religious Right, and whose mission is an American government that is one part theocratic and one part aristocratic. The organization certainly doesn’t come across as a group that would welcome people who just want to brush up their religious resume, so Mrs. Clinton’s affiliation with them makes it at least somewhat plausible that when she promotes the Bible she really means it.
Hillary Clinton’s religion has never been seriously vetted. No Republican candidate would ever go after someone for having ties to Jesus-freaks, and then-Senator Obama avoided religion as much as he could after the Reverend Wright news cycle(s). Interestingly, though, in a campaign marked by nastiness, Hillary Clinton stayed relatively quiet during the Reverend Wright saga, only remarking that she was offended by his remarks and wouldn’t have had him as a pastor. The reason for her relative restraint probably had something to do with the fact that, as far as cultish religious extremism goes, The Family makes Reverend Wright look like a Unitarian. President Obama had the good sense to unequivocally repudiate his sketchy religious association; if we demand the same of Mrs. Clinton, will she oblige?
When other members of The Family – Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback, Tom Coburn, Jim Demint, etc. – say mind-bogglingly dumb things in the name of Christianity, we have no problem recognizing how absurd they sound. We already know that it is wildly negligent for our leaders – especially one as respected as Hillary Clinton – to propagate the idea that the Bible is good political guidance. The President of the United States deals with issues that overlap with Biblical doctrine every day, and on issue after issue the Bible offers astoundingly bad advice for the modern era.
The Bible is, at best, contradictory when it comes to power and authority, which are central to The Family’s religious doctrine. We all know Mark 12:17 (“render unto Caesar what is Caesear’s and God what is God’s”), and Hebrews 13:17 endorses state authority as well (“Obey your leaders and submit to them”). But what about “All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18), and “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? Titus 3:9 suggests that one should avoid legislating altogether, reading “avoid foolish…controversies about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless,” but Proverbs 29:2 rejects this sentiment, reading: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” Daniel 2:21 tells believers that God is personally responsible for who is and is not placed in positions of authority, but Psalm 9:17 warns “nations that forget God” that they will be sent to Hell – presumably, God didn’t put their leaders there.
Of course, no citizen of the 21st Century strictly adheres to these anachronistic, mutually-exclusive commands and warnings, but that’s the point: either you adhere to them, or you aren’t really turning to the Bible for wisdom. The more seriously you take these verses, the less seriously you participate in modern society. Does Christian theology provide good guidance for forming agreeable, let alone sensible, policy when it comes to, say, marriage equality, an issue on which Hillary Clinton has been milquetoast at best? How about the Israel-Palestine conflict? Education? Will “do not take your own revenge… but leave room for the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19) square with America’s national security apparatus and commitments in a new Clinton administration? Of course not, and the success of a Hillary Clinton presidency – or any presidency, for that matter – depends on the degree to which this is recognized.
There isn’t a single political issue, domestic or foreign, that is in any way aided by reverence for the Bible. And, in most cases, belief only gets in the way. As someone who’s taken to saying – rightly, but very overtly – that she’s been to 112 countries in the past six years, in many cases for the purpose of ameliorating problems arising at least in part from policies motivated by religion, Hillary Clinton should know this as well as anyone. I hope she does. But then why is she saying what she’s saying?
Either way, I’m not impressed
So which is it? Did Hillary Clinton dumb herself down for Joe-the-Biblethumper, or is the Good Book really the greatest influence on her political decision-making process? Was her answer, as to which book most influenced her life, indicative of an intellectually dishonest politician or a dangerously honest religious powerbroker?
No matter which is the case, the need to express belief in order to be taken seriously as a politician can and does force otherwise smart people like Hillary Clinton to say profoundly and obviously dumb things. Mrs. Clinton has no need to sound like such a candidate, even when she is one, and yet she is already receding into a cynical, defensive political fetal position of empty patriotism and religion. She can do better, and we deserve better; especially if we’re going to be seeing a lot more of her for the next six years, if not the next decade.
While liberals around the country proclaim how #ReadyForHillary they are, they should be reminded from time to time that, aside from her gender, there’s nothing to be “ready” for. Hillary Clinton represents the same ideologies, dogmas and calculations that have marked mainstream politics for the last fifty years. So far, in her preliminary campaign, she has added nothing new to our collective conversation concerning how best to live together, and I see no reason to get my hopes up.
In the end, this all speaks to an insidious truth in American politics: America was ready for an African-American president, and it is ready for a female president. But it is not ready for an honest president, and it is not ready for an unbelieving president.
And I think that’s a damn shame.