Lost in the hysteria over Reverend Jeremiah Wright's remarks is the fact that the current race offers a rare snapshot of the three great strands of American political religion. It's ironic that Wright occupies center stage, since, in the twenty-first century, his is by far the weakest of these--a progressive Christianity which stretches from the Social Gospel to black liberation theology, a big tent of liberal and left religion that's not very crowded anymore. John McCain's problem pastor, a Texas pulpit-pounder named John Hagee, stands in for a more familiar faith: populist fundamentalism, a crowd-pleasing mix of hellfire and the kind of prosperity preaching that encourages followers to ante up to the Lord in both spirit and dollars. And then there's Hillary Clinton's religion: the third strand of political faith, the least understood and arguably the most powerful.
Clinton, an evangelically inclined Methodist, is by far the most religiously rooted and theologically astute of the three candidates, a Christian intellectual schooled in the cold war religion of Reinhold Niebuhr's post-leftist years. Don Jones, her youth pastor and a lifelong spiritual mentor, calls the faith he instructed her in then and which they still share a third way between old-school fundamentalism and liberal Christianity. It's not centrism, though; Jones describes it in terms of Burkean conservatism, after the eighteenth-century reactionary philosopher's belief that change should be slow and come without the sort of "social leveling" that offends class hierarchy.
That's the crux of the conflict between the progressive Christianity that's broad enough to encompass both Jeremiah Wright and Jimmy Carter, and the elitist variation long embraced by Hillary: The former dreams always, if imperfectly, of challenging power, while the latter works to reaffirm it. Clinton's faith is not the liberal version of Christianity that Democratic leaders have traditionally invoked--instead, her version, exemplified by her alliance with a shadowy network of powerful conservative Christians, is steeped in the kind of establishmentarianism that she has otherwise tried to distance herself from throughout the primary season.
Clinton's formal introduction to the publicity-shy network of mostly evangelical elites in government, military, and business known to the world as The Fellowship--and to its adherents as The Family--came at a lunch organized on her behalf in February 1993 at the Cedars, "an estate on the Potomac that serves as the headquarters for the National Prayer Breakfast and the prayer groups it has spawned around the world," as she wrote in Living History. "Doug Coe, the longtime National Prayer Breakfast organizer"--and the de facto leader of the The Family, dubbed by Time the "Stealth Persuader"--"is a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."
Or with the kind of politically useful friends one might not make otherwise. For the eight years she lived in the White House, Clinton met regularly with a gathering of women who put aside political differences to seek--for themselves, for their husbands' careers--an even greater power. Among Clinton's prayer partners were Susan Baker, the wife of Bush consigliere James and a former board member of James Dobson's Focus on the Family; Joanne Kemp, the wife of conservative icon Jack, responsible for introducing the political theology of fundamentalist guru Francis Schaeffer to Washington; Eileen Bakke, a leading activist for charter schools based on "character" and the wife of Dennis Bakke, then the CEO of AES, one of the world's largest power companies; and Janet Hall, the wife of Representative Tony Hall, once a socially liberal Democrat from Ohio who, in The Family's care, became pro-life, anti-gay rights, and simply confused about the separation of church and state. Hillary's "prayer warriors," as she called them, sent her daily Scripture verses to study, and Baker provided Clinton with spiritual counsel during "political storms."
When Clinton moved to the Senate, she became a regular at a weekly Senate prayer meeting led by Coe, and rumor spread among evangelical elites that she was seeking individual spiritual counsel with Coe. "She needs that nucleus of energy that the Coe camp produces," the Reverend Rob Schenck, president of another elite Capitol Hill ministry called Faith and Action, says. "Washington right now is a town where, if you're going to be powerful, you need religion."
But what kind of religion? The Family's major concern, as revealed in the nearly 600 boxes of documents in their archives, is power itself. Its ministry is shaped not by the needs of the poor but of the wealthy, the "up and out," the "key men," whom The Family believes God anoints for leadership. These chosen, gathered in "cells," can listen to Christ's private teachings for the powerful, which they'll then put into action for the benefit of the masses. It's a trickle-down religion, classical political paternalism.
In Coe's teachings, such ideas come across bluntly, to say the least. In 2002, I sat in on a conversation between Coe and Republican Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, who'd come to The Family's C Street House--a former convent on Capitol Hill--for counseling. Coe sought to explain the secret of success for God-led elites who'll work together toward His kingdom: "a covenant," he said. "Like the Mafia. Look at the strength of their bonds. ... See, for them, it's honor. For us, it's Jesus." Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their "brothers": "Look at Hitler," he said. "Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, bin Laden."
In a video I obtained of Coe preaching to a group of elite evangelical leaders in 1989, Coe expands upon the concept. "Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler were three men. Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere. ... Jesus said, 'You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself.' ... [T]hat was the demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people." Coe's only evident argument with Hitler is the Fuhrer's substitution of himself for the Father.
David Kuo, a former special assistant to President Bush, defends Coe's Hitler talk as a metaphor for commitment. But it's more than that. Since Coe assumed leadership of The Family in 1969, according to The Family's archives he's used its prayer networks to facilitate U.S. support for God's "key men" overseas, such as the recently deceased Indonesian dictator Suharto, a Muslim willing to pray with Coe so long as American arms kept flowing to his brutal regime, and the Somali dictator Siad Barre, who agreed to pray with Family emissary Senator Chuck Grassley.
Of course, The Family no more owns Hillary than Jeremiah Wright's beliefs define Obama's or John Hagee will choose John McCain's bombing targets. For one thing, Hillary is not a member of Coe's Family. Rather, she's a "Friend," a semi-formal designation that marks her as less elect than a member but more chosen than the rest of us. Her goals are not always their goals, but, when they coincide, Hillary and Family members work well together, as on initiatives to reframe workplace religious freedom as a license for religious discrimination and international religious freedom as a justification for an interventionist foreign policy. As with Wright and Obama, the problem is not whom Clinton knows, but the ideas she shares.
The third way of American Protestantism exemplified by The Family isn't about a return to an imagined past, as longed for by Hagee's populist fundamentalism, or a vision for the future, as dreamed by the best traditions of progressive religion. It's a faith in things-as-they-are, a conviction in keeping with the reductionist reading of Romans 13:1 embraced by The Family: "[T]he powers that be are ordained of God." Within the Family, it doesn't confront ideas, it coexists with them, its power growing by absorbing enemies rather than destroying them. "We work with power where we can," Coe declares, "build new power where we can't." Clinton is a perfect example. Critics compare Clinton's faux populism on the campaign trail to George W. Bush's patented style of fake folksiness. But Bush, who found his faith at the bottom of a bottle, comes to his populism by way of traditional fundamentalism; it's Hillary who's the true establishment believer.
Jeff Sharlet is an associate research scholar at NewYork University's Center for Religion and Media and author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,
By Jeff Sharlet