Hillary Clinton General Board of Church and Society

August 11, 2017

Hillary Clinton, Methodism & Progressivism

A retired United Methodist pastor friend of Hillary Clinton is publishing a book with daily devotionals he emailed her during the presidential campaign. Apparently after the election she told him that she would like to do some preaching herself as a United Methodist laywoman.

An article describing this exchange appeared in The Atlantic, exciting lots of surprise by both liberals and conservatives that Clinton is a lifelong Methodist deeply shaped by the church and still attached to it. Many on the left and right today often assume that serious religious commitment is contrary to progressive political beliefs.

But much of what we identify as political progressivism emerged from Anglo-American Protestantism, especially Methodism. Clinton grew up as a traditional Methodist in a Chicago suburb. She was deeply influenced as a teenager by a progressive youth pastor who went on to teach at Drew Seminary in New Jersey. She also enthusiastically subscribed to an official Methodist young adult magazine that became so radical that the denomination shut it down in the early 1970s.

Decades later Clinton recalled she kept every issue of that Methodist magazine and was especially influenced by an anti-Vietnam War article in it by Carl Oglesby, who was president of Students for a Democratic Society. I wrote about him here.

The Methodism that so influenced Clinton in the 1960s was very different from today. It was larger, more confident, more activist and in most ways more liberal theologically and politically. It was, before 50 years of membership decline, still America’s largest Protestant denomination. It was energized by and actively involved with the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, along with emerging feminism, environmentalism, demands for a wider federal welfare state and income redistribution, disarmament, plus solidarity with Third World anti-colonial revolutions.

Methodism was also in the 1960s shifting toward abortion rights affirmation and open conversation about homosexuality. A poll showed most Methodist clergy disbelieved the literal virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. Social action was displacing traditional Methodist emphases on personal faith. The General Board of Church and Society emerged in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill as a liberal lobby, displacing the old temperance society. The missions board in New York was abandoning overseas missions evangelism in favor of social and political projects of liberation.

Hillary Clinton came of age at the crest of that Methodist tectonic shift. Those days must have been bracing, especially for a young person! Few if any in the church then fully appreciated the imminent decline and collapse of Methodist progressivism as a dynamic force that had been rising since the early 1900s. United Methodism in the USA now is much smaller, more marginal to wider society, less political, and, in many ways, though many are surprised to hear it, less liberal.

It’s also important to ponder that Clinton is just one of many progressive Midwestern politicians who arose over the last century, deeply influenced by Methodism’s social concerns and reforming zeal. They include Walter Mondale and George McGovern, both sons of Methodist clergy, plus Hubert Humphrey, who attended Methodist worship while growing up. Farther back, William Jennings Bryan, a founder of American progressivism, was technically Presbyterian but often attended Methodist churches. So five Democratic presidential candidates have been Methodist influenced Midwestern progressives.

Why Methodism and the Midwest? Methodism’s early founders, chiefly Wesley, were not progressives. But Methodism’s drive to reform society, reinforced by postmillennialism, an expectation that God’s Kingdom was inevitably breaking forth, and a spiritual perfectionism, all contributed spiritually towards political progressivism’s aspiration for a just and egalitarian society achieved through political action.

This brand of Methodist progressive activism was especially strong in the upper Midwest, settled and culturally shaped by the New England Puritan diaspora, with its longtime focus on education, literacy, equality and political reform. The Puritan vision of the idealized city on a hill was naturally receptive to Methodist social perfectionism. It created a cultural/political dynamo that even now keeps pushing/pushing/pushing for more equality and justice.

But this dynamo in American political culture has been mostly secularized and disconnected from its original Christian anthropology. It strives for endless new rights and entitlements for the individual without fully understanding the human person as God’s image bearer, with duties, moral limits, and established identity. Classic Methodism rejects Utopianism and understands the boundaries of political perfectionism in fallen humanity. But classic Methodism, even as it has theologically and spiritually revived over the last half century, operates within a diminished denomination and has not focused on political theology.

Interestingly, Clinton’s retired minister book-writing friend self-describes as “a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving.” Process Theology, much of it developed by Methodist theologian John Cobb in the 1960s and 1970s, claims God is not omnipotent but constantly evolving and growing in interaction with creation.

In some ways Process Theology is an emasculated version of Methodist holiness and perfectionism, believing God is perfecting creation, politically and otherwise, while also being perfected with it. It’s a dated theological fad arisen at the tail end of Methodist progressivism’s crest, and is mostly now confined to retired clergy.

Methodism’s creative contribution to political progressivism now seems mostly to have run its course, with the secular progressive heirs not very interested in the spiritual origins. But Clinton’s spiritual and political journey, with the forthcoming book from her minister friend, are important to that history, and to understanding where we are today.


22 Responses to Hillary Clinton, Methodism & Progressivism

  1. Siobhan Flanagan says:

    So evil has been in Methodist church for decades. No virgin birth? God not in control? Who is in control? Sounds like Satan is in control of Methodists

    • Patrick98 says:

      Martin Luther once said that the place the devil is most active is within the church. At that time he wasn’t talking about the Methodist Church. That statement has been proven true in many churches at many times. If there is a church here on earth that is perfectly pure and holy I would like to know which one that is.

      • diaphone64 says:

        Haven’t you been listening to our media masters? The only perfect and holy religion is Islam!!! (Just ignore that it was invented by a psychotic, mass-murdering pedophile.)

  2. Tracy McCollister says:

    I believe God must “call” someone into full-time Christian service. He could never call Hillary Clinton into full-time ministry until she does a lot of repenting and asking forgiveness of a lot of people.

  3. Paula says:

    That big stone Methodist building in DC houses every leftist cause known to man. What’s one more leftist godless woman to them? And, they get their funding from unsuspecting Methodists. I don’t give all my tithe to my church, but give to other Christian causes.

  4. EdKe says:

    Unfortunately all US mainline reformation churches are failing and the pace of decline is increasing. The fall of the US church is tracking with the trashing of Biblical Authority.
    ‘Denominations’, which is not a biblical creation, are part of the failings. Denominations were founded essentially by a single leader many decades ago but who today is treated too much like God. E.g., in the Methodist Church, Wesley is mentioned more than God. It’s no wonder that the denominations get bound-up in the Devil’s dirty laundry sowed by their leaders. It’s people Worshiping God and obeying His Word that make the staying power of Christianity. Not reformation churches.

  5. God really does love us and is active in His or her life as one yields to the Holy Spirit…

  6. MarcoPolo says:

    I’m not agreeing with the decline of Methodist’s social activism, anymore than I would agree with the inability for Hillary Clinton’s sincerity to contribute to the Church’s purpose.

    If Hillary feels compelled to enter the Theological circle, I would think she should be welcomed with open arms. That’ll be a good thing for the “dying” church!

    Given that our society and politics was hijacked during the first eight years of this century by the Evangelicals, it’s about time the Liberals who held sway forty-some years ago, who need to interject some energy that speaks FOR those who have been displaced.

    Mark Tooley writes: “…serious religious commitment is contrary to progressive political beliefs.” Really?! NOT!
    Well, maybe he thinks so, but in reality, most Conservatives simply cannot embrace cognitive dissonance, or the idea that there never was a diminishment of faith, but rather, an over exposure from the Neo-Cons who tried to smear the Left as non-religious. Shame on them!

    Go Hillary! America could use some sincerity of soul right now.
    I just wish Hillary was in the Oval Office instead of the one who actually DID receive the Evangelical votes!

    Now THERE’S a shameful display of displaced loyalty!

    • Rebecca says:

      MarcoPolo, You’re trolling in an ever expanding circle. Just so you know, Christians including Methodists are supposed to believe in Jesus, not Karl Marx. Since Karl Marx was very anti-Christian, serious Christians cannot subscribe to progressive (Marxist) beliefs.

    • Carlos says:

      I seem to remember that the Democrat Party nearly voted all mention of God out of their platform at their 2012 national convention. This would seem to confirm Mark’s assertion that “serious religious commitment is contrary to progressive political beliefs.”

  7. If God wants her to speak, more power to her. Many people who have gone through the training preach very well, but the pay is not going to be like that to which she is accustomed.

  8. Joe M says:

    I laugh.

    I grew up Methodist as well. No one was “profoundly” influenced by anything in the 60s-70s church, unless it confirmed what they wanted to hear. People like HRC simply used religion to give gravitas to their social concerns.

    Also, see Thomas Oden’s biography. 70s Methodism was essentially a betrayal of the gospel. He spent the last 20 years of his life repenting of his respectable “Methodism.”

    • James Cooper says:

      Methodism’s left leaning so called “progressive” lurch started to unravel after the new millenium; at the 2012 General Conference and then at the 2016 GC it was routed by the new force in the Church-our brothers and sisters from the emerging churches especially in Africa. The irony was classic-all of the white progressives bemoaning the actions of their brothers and sisters of color. The hypocrisy and apostasy is simply off the scale. Collectively, we may be in for another “my heart was strangely warmed” moment. Keep looking up.

  9. Linda Cebrian says:

    Dear Hillary, The UMC already has enough problems. Please go and bother Jehovah’s Witnesses. Leave us alone.

  10. Pastor S.F. says:

    Interesting article by Tooley. Religion keeps get over-politicized, both on the Left and the Right, with each side constantly slamming the other. Religion is called to articulate our permanent spiritual goals and principles, and to make peace between liberals and conservatives, just as the early church was able to make some peace between Jews and Gentiles. Religious groups need to understand and articulate why and how they should resist being enlisted for political causes.
    Second, I wish Tooley had named the youth pastor who influenced Hillary, and the magazine that got closed.

  11. Penny Bagby says:

    My husband and I in our youth lived in small towns around our state and the progressivism of the 70’s never touched small town Methodism. Hillary is looking to be a “leader” somewhere and it will be unfortunate if she decides to ply her social wares in Methodist leadership circles where confusion already reigns. But it won’t be surprising.

  12. I pray to GOD that this very sad story does not come true. Hillary is a professed communist & she thinks we are all Deplorbia. I have been a Methodist all my life and this is like a VERY SAD. Think About it Pray about it for the Church sake.

    • MarcoPolo says:

      I don’t think Hillary Clinton needs defending, but for the record and Truth, she is NOT a Communist.
      And she only referred to HALF of Trump’s supporters as Deplorables. So if you feel that she was referring to YOU, and not the other half…. well? Then I guess you’re a Deplorable.

      You don’t have to FEEL persecuted if you’re NOT persecuted.

      Namaste’

  13. J. Hall says:

    Get out of town. I’ll leave the Methodist Church if they give her anything unless she confesses and repents all the evil she has done. Publicly. Yes we all sin, but most of us usually recognize and ask forgiveness.

  14. gschmierer says:

    Defending and perpetuating Denominations should not be the end goal. Forget the Reformation and go back to the 1st Century Church – Reset and start over. Man’s wisdom and Theologies are dangerous and produces division among Believers. If there needs to be “Church Fathers” then the Apostles should be given that title. All other “church fathers” will only continue the mess the Church is in now.

  15. Philip Morrill says:

    The Methodist Church of the 60’s and 70’s was indeed interesting and I agree with Mark’s final conclusion that Hillary is a case study of the evolving church. Many progressives like her stayed with the church which begs the question why is the church “less liberal”? Could it be that we lost people to secularism since that was at the core of the belief system in the first place? Or could it be that hard core liberals don’t believe in God and vilify Christianity and these people had to make a choice?

  16. Lloyd E. Fleming says:

    I am 100% a progressive Methodist. I reject totally the idea that progressive ideas have caused a xe line in mainline membership. Thw Southern Baptists have lost over 1 million members in the last decade. The way to stay relevant in a secular world is exactly what progressives are doing. Calling for social justice, supporting scientific inquiry, learning from higher criticism and biblical literacy, supporting the rights of all people, following that most radical of all statements, the Sermon on the Mt. Good for Hillary!

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