Hillary-the-Preacher, and Why Journalists Can’t Let Go of the “Democrats Don’t Get Religion” Story

You may have heard earlier in the week that Hillary Clinton might be thinking about becoming a preacher. Not a minister, mind you—at nearly 70, and after multiple successful careers, that might seem to her like a bit of a bother. But apparently she’s expressed some interest in preaching. Which, you know, good on her. I’d be interested to hear what she has to say. If she’s half as good a homilist as Obama, she’d still be better than me.

It’s an interesting enough story: not huge, but interesting enough. But some of the Atlantic‘s reporting tries to do a little too much.* Emma Green’s story notes the imminent publication of Clinton’s pastor Bill Shillady’s book of the devotionals he fed her on the campaign trail, offers speculation on the how 2016 might have turned her to the religious, more speculation about why Clinton is sometimes reluctant to talk about her faith, and, finally, an analysis of how that reluctance may have prevented her from becoming president.

The first two topics are problematic in their own right, but the last two really concern me. The first is introduced with a quote attributed to Clinton that talking publicly about her faith might make her seem “too pious.” Well, what do you suppose could have been going on in 1994 to make her hesitant to discuss personal matters? It couldn’t have been a press that had already been hostile for decades by that point, an aggressive investigation into what turned out to be nothing, and a Republican party dedicated to destroying her husband’s career and her own?

This pattern of ignoring larger context repeats with the discussion of Clinton’s supposed secular vocabulary on the campaign trail:

Her move may have been strategic, but it also may have cost her. As primary season approached last year, nearly half of Americans described Clinton as not very or at all religious or said they didn’t know what her religion was. The conservative commentator Erick Erickson pointed out that some leaders were more willing to believe Trump is a Christian “without ever professing Jesus as his Lord and Savior” than they were to believe Clinton’s stated faith in the gospel.

Good Lord, is this ill-informed.

There has been a well-crafted forty-year campaign to depict her as a phony and a liar, and conservative media routinely denounces the faith of liberals and progressives as illegitimate. There are people who still believe that Pres. Obama was a Kenyan Muslim atheist, for God’s sake. At the same time, there was a concerted effort by Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and other conservative evangelicals to prop Trump up as some kind of anointed savior for the Christians, a campaign that seems to have gone into overdrive as we flirt with mushroom clouds and a sea of fire on the Korean peninsula.

Of course some voters don’t think Clinton is a Christian. It’s what they’ve been conditioned to believe for many, many years.

My policy in reading stories about why Clinton lost the election is to downgrade pieces that don’t consider alternative explanations. With Trump’s margins so close in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, you could attribute the results to any number of factors: economics, race, vote suppression, Clinton’s mistakes, or yes, Russian interference and Comey’s disastrous memo late in the game.

The point isn’t that any one of these explanations is good, it’s that they’re all plausible, and need to be reckoned with. So I’m intensely dubious when reading something like this:

The big swing states that Clinton lost in November—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan—are strongholds of white, working-class voters, many of whom are mainline Protestants and Catholics. Clinton did not focus on faith outreach to these groups: Her campaign declined a speaking invitation at Notre Dame, for example, reasoning that white Catholics weren’t her target audience.

Campaigns, especially presidential campaigns, have to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources, the most precious of which is the candidate’s time. Clinton’s team seems to have built a model relying on black evangelicals and white liberals to carry her across the finish line. I personally would have recommended that Clinton speak at Notre Dame and Liberty University, but it’s easy to see why she wouldn’t: she believed she had more to gain from other voters. Gaining enough white working class votes to win any of those states by speaking at an elite Catholic institution seems like a highly iffy proposition. Perhaps it would have worked in Michigan, with its razor-thin margin separating Trump and Clinton. But Clinton would have had a solid win if she’d brought home the protest votes for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, and the same is true in Wisconsin.

In short, sure, it might have been a mistake not to speak at Notre Dame, but it’s hardly malpractice. More important, given what we know about the microtargeting of fake news stories in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, criticism of Clinton’s outreach strategies has to be weighed against the very real possibility that the election was stolen from her.

But to come back to the subject of difficult decisions, modern Democratic campaigns often have to weigh the use of religious language carefully. Former Obama adviser Josh DuBois complains that “Clinton’s supporters ‘too often felt like there had to be a binary choice between engaging religious Americans and Secretary Clinton being a strong progressive,'” for example.

Democrats are in a difficult position here: secular voters are large and growing part of their coalition. For some of them, using religious frames or emphasizing religious outreach is a threat to their values. Likewise, religious voters: they want their perspectives validated in their own language. In some ways, it is a binary choice: the demands of the two groups aren’t always compatible. The baby can’t always be split. (A good example of the strain this puts on the Democratic coalition is the debate over whether pro-life candidates should receive support from the party.)

So why is the religion-and-politics narrative always “Democrats are failing at faith outreach”?

We live in a religiously pluralistic society, and faith outreach of any variety carries significant risk. Voters are tribal these days, and part of the GOP tribal self-definition is that Democrats are not religious. More than a few (but less than a lot) progressives left religious affiliation behind exactly because it was politicized, or simply would prefer to keep their faith and their politics separate. It would be great if Dems could break the conservative definition of liberals as godless heathen commies. It would also be great if secular perspectives could be recognized as legitimate and important.

And last but not least, it would be great if journalists could stop blaming candidates and start investigating the larger, very complex realities that are not entirely under their control.

*Tip o’ the pin to Lee M.