Hillary Clinton and the echoes of history

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.

Skye Winspur
Skye Winspur is a 33 year old Wisconsinite who spends his days working with his hands and volunteering for causes he believe in. He writes on civil rights issues; gay history and culture; political campaigns of all kinds; Christian theology; and movies.

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  • Bill_Perdue

    All we have to know about Hillary Clinton is that she’s a right wing religious nut, a warmonger, that she used the race card to go after Obama in 2008 and that shes a union buster.

  • If I thought the Clintons were anything like Teddy Roosevelt I’d have already changed my icon to one of those “ready for Hillary logos”.

  • Indigo

    It doesn’t hold up very well, if at all, but in the search for autocrats with liberalising tendencies, Teddy Roosevelt’s just too recent.

  • mirth

    I have to give you props for the Netherlands leap. It’s ballet worthy.

  • nicho

    Hillary’s only moral justification for anything is in the Gospel According to Goldman Sachs. Any appeal to religion is just a political ploy. I’m disgusted by any mention of religion in politics at all. It has no place.

  • Skye Winspur

    It’s a secular country and it isn’t, at least when it comes to where leaders find moral justification for policies. Even in the Netherlands, which is a very secular society, the finance minister is cracking down on banking bonuses, saying “Our Calvinist approach to life is that you have to work hard, to behave, be sensible about your money.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/05/can-bankers-behave/389558/)

  • nicho

    Hillary is whatever the focus groups tell her to be. If they decide they want a nun, she will take the veil tomorrow.

  • nicho

    You may want to read up on Hillary’s connection to The Family before talking about her role as a modern-day Joan of Arc. Beyond that, I find this discussion of how she has to position herself religiously to be unAmerican and pretty offputting. Last I checked, this was still a secular country. I will not vote for anyone who runs on religion. If that means sitting out the election, fine with me.

  • Methodist. Always was. They attended Foundry UMC in Dupont back in the 90s (maybe they still do, no idea). Oddly enough the Doles went there too until he decided in 95 that he was running for president and they needed to find a more conservative place of worship. One of my friends sang in the choir there at the time (an excellent choir, btw) and said he saw them there every Sunday (together or alone) unless one or both were out of town.

  • Frederick II? I’m a frequent Clinton critic/skeptic, but even I think that’s an ridiculous stretch.

  • Indigo

    Hilllary the WASP? I can see it but I didn’t know she was Methodist, I thought she was actually Presbylutherian like the Simpsons. Regardless, the new ‘Grandma’ meme looks good on her. Shades of ‘Mom’ on Futurama. OMG! She’s an assembly of cartoon women!

  • 2karmanot

    Ready?—-5,4,3,2,1: the Hitlery meme begins.

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