Like many historians of American religion, I read Emma Green’s Atlantic article “Hillary Wants to Preach” with great interest.
On one level, Green’s piece situates Hillary Clinton in a well-worn narrative in American politics: the redemption story. Americans love tales of public figures redeeming themselves by discovering a new purpose in life after a heart-wrenching failure (see: Carter, Jimmy). Following her surprising lost to Donald Trump last November, Clinton would seem a prime candidate for such a narrative. The prospect of a failed presidential candidate finding new meaning as a pastor is a story so good that if it weren’t true, the media would likely invent it anyway.
In reality, though, Clinton’s faith commitments are nothing new. The particular insight that she has contemplated seeking ordination might represent a new nugget of intelligence. But Clinton has long signaled that many of her policy commitments are grounded in moral and religious convictions.
During the 2016 campaign, observers rightly situated Clinton within the Social Gospel tradition. This set of beliefs, which emerged in American Protestantism during the early twentieth century, holds that the salvation of the individual is of little value without a corresponding effort to improve society. In other words, it isn’t good enough for individual Christians to withdraw from their communities and live piously. Rather, they must engage in political and social activism to transform the world around them for the better.
The Social Gospel has returned to the news recently, as progressive Americans have sought to cultivate a vibrant Religious Left to combat the entrenched Religious Right that contributed to Trump’s election. The multi-denominational – and at times interfaith – Social Gospel movement provides a key template for a modern Religious Left. Believing it their duty to bring the “Kingdom of God” to Earth, Social Gospelers wedded their faith to a range of political causes, including worker’s rights, good government, and anti-militarism. At their movement’s height in the early twentieth century, Social Gospel ministers enjoyed access to political power and were some of the foremost proponents of progressive political causes.
If Hillary Clinton does step back into the public sphere as a lay or ordained preacher, she would become the most prominent American in decades to champion the progressive values of the Social Gospel.
More importantly, Clinton has the ability to articulate an updated vision of the Social Gospel that avoids some of its earlier failings.
In its early form, the Social Gospel presented a religious challenge to established wealth and power. As time passed, though, its message of gradual improvement increasingly became coopted by the forces of wealth and power. Political and business leaders found that by adopting the language of the movement, they could tame some of the most strident social critiques of the day.
Some of the most damaging attacks on Clinton during the 2016 campaign reflected concerns about a similar phenomenon. According to her critics, Clinton, with her ties to Wall Street, represented the interests of a corporate progressivism that sought to ease the worst social ills without actually combatting them.
In her new role, Clinton might channel the original prophetic message of the Social Gospel. Freed from the dependence on established interest groups that is a necessity of a presidential campaign, she could now offer a bolder vision for the future of the United States grounded in progressive religious and moral values.
The other major criticism of the Social Gospel was that its optimistic message of progress failed to address the very real suffering in the world. In the wake of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, the cheery religious vision of the early 1900s no longer seemed sustainable.
The need for progressive religion to be grounded in realism seems especially urgent as we watch the rapidly deteriorating situation with North Korea and the rising potential of a large-scale military conflict. In this way, too, Hillary Clinton has the potential to be a pivotal figure. Clinton’s measured approach to politics, which she demonstrated during her tenure as a U.S. Senator and as Secretary of State, would ground her modern Social Gospel in the realism often absent a century ago.
Hillary Clinton is ideally situated to become the leading public exponent of a modern Social Gospel. Assuming that role, should she choose to do so, might well prove to be her most enduring legacy.