The launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign opens up a long eighteen months (assuming she eventually secures the Democratic nomination) in which friends and opponents alike will battle to define her. Clinton is likely to change campaign tactics many times, but some things about her are not going to change, and one of them is her religious background.
In an increasingly pluralist America, Clinton represents the mainline Protestant establishment that has been falling from the top of America’s cultural hierarchy.
As a Methodist and a Democrat, she is positioning herself as a standard-bearer for church-going liberals (an oft-overlooked demographic), who are dismayed at the growing influence of right-wing Catholics — such as House Speaker John Boehner, VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Hillary is thus standing in the shadow of Eisenhower and even older Protestant men. Indeed, we may have to go back to the 18th century to find leaders who had the political appeal, along with the limitations, that she does.
Frederick II of Prussia (born 1712, died 1786) was a ruthless monarch who led his kingdom through two wars against other European powers. He used his Protestant affiliation to great effect in grabbing the Protestant-majority province of Silesia from the Austrian Empire. At the same time, he cultivated an image of the “enlightened absolutist,” willing to take on entrenched interests such as the landed aristocracy so that administration could be modernized. In an age before modern democracy, Frederick used all the techniques of positioning and cunning diplomacy that today’s presidential candidates are expected to have down pat.
Frederick’s adversaries were, for the most part, other monarchs, but his style of rule, with policies including compulsory military service, was considered forceful even by observers of the time. All told, he left a less-than-progressive legacy of authoritarianism in Germany, so much so that his brand of forceful nationalism led him to be embraced as an icon by the Nazis.
Hillary may be able to leave an equally decisive imprint on American history as president, but to get elected she will likely have to incorporate her religious values in her rhetoric, and fashion a somewhat new persona as a leader grounded in Christian faith. Her Republican opponent is, without a doubt, going to play upon the fears and resentments of conservative Christians; she needs to offer a more forward-looking vision that is also grounded (in fact, better grounded) in Christian scripture. Nostalgia for the 1990s is useless; those who are truly, achingly nostalgic for the days when open homosexuality was taboo in Washington aren’t worth her time.
The quasi-monarchical position of the Clinton family in the U.S. today invites a comparison with hereditary rulers of the past, no matter how populist Hillary’s campaign may appear. I raise the example of Frederick II, an “enlightened champion” of the 18th century to point out that the human desire to see privileged people crusade on behalf of the oppressed (however that slippery term is used) may not have changed that much in 250 years. Hillary Clinton, as Frederick did, must thread the needle of maintaining an image of reliable Protestantism and American tradition while also tapping into the zeitgeist of these post-confessional, techno-utopian times. It is an unenviable task.