Burns Strider, Hillary Clinton’s disgraced former “faith guru”—accused of sexually harassing at least two young women—was well known around DC as a kind of faith fixer years before the 2008 HRC campaign. I recall distinctly that when liberal religious leaders wanted to meet with senior Congressional Democrats during George W. Bush’s first term, Strider was the one to set it up. I even recall the oleaginous voice, the good ol’ boy style.
The son of a “Big Daddy” sheriff type in rural Mississippi, Strider from early on allied his fortunes with various Southern Democrats as an intern, speechwriter, and staff director for the House Democratic Caucus. When, after 2004, the party as a whole grew convinced that it was losing by failing to reach so-called “values voters,” Strider “seen his opportunities and he took ’em” in the serve-yourself spirit of George Washington Plunkitt.
As a Southerner and a Southern Baptist to boot, Strider could now advertise himself as someone whose Magic Evangelical Decoder Ring would lead Democrats to sweet victory through better messaging and better posturing vis-a-vis conservative faith audiences. Strider encouraged Nancy Pelosi to set up a Faith Working Group in 2005. He collaborated with fellow faithy fixers Eric Sapp and Mara Vanderslice, who had established a specialized consulting shop called Common Good Strategies in 2006 and re-named The Eleison Group in 2008 [eleison is Greek for “have mercy”], with Strider and Sapp identified as the group’s co-founders.
Easy to see why Sen. Clinton would see him as the obvious pick to serve as senior advisor for “faith operations” in her first presidential campaign (one of his duties was sending the candidate a daily Bible verse: hard to believe, I know).
In this high-visibility gig the guru revealed his inner creep. But because Strider’s inappropriate behavior toward a subordinate campaign staffer was concealed (he wasn’t fired, and the complaining female staffer was “moved to a new job”), he could still emerge from HRC’s losing campaign with his reputation intact. From Eleison he could go on to found, again with Sapp, the American Values Network in 2010. He could sign on to help run David Brock’s various pro-Hillary PACS: American Bridge and Correct the Record.
As eagle-eyed Sarah Posner noted in these pages back in 2010, among the Eleison Group’s first batch of clients were several real stinkers: one who became a Republican, one who voted with the Republicans most of the time, and others who wouldn’t support universal health care for “religious” reasons.
New York Magazine’s always-readable Ed Kilgore made much the same point recently:
It sure looks like Strider represented the South end of a North-bound dinosaur, urging Democrats to make the right noises (and compromises) to hang onto an ever-shrinking segment of conservative white voters. Aside from the diminishing returns—morally and politically—from such a strategy, it arguably sacrificed appeals to genuinely progressive people of faith who were either taken for granted or written off.
Let me join the amen chorus on this most crucial aspect of the Strider story. Sure, it’s a bit of a scandal that HRC left Strider in place even when her own campaign director insisted that he be fired. It’s a bit more of a scandal that she stayed personal friends with him despite what she knew to be his creepy behavior. But the real scandal here is the spectacle of Democrats still trying to make nice with white evangelical tribalists at the expense of their own stated values and principles.
“Faith Operations?” The whole concept needs a decent funeral. It’s paternalistic and demeaning, and at the operational level it has been shown to be a dismal failure.
How about you just stand for what is good and right, Democrats? Decent people of faith—and people of no faith—will find you there.