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, is important to that history, and to understanding where we are today.Google+