A study in religious contrasts Clinton and Dole took diverse beliefs from Methodist roots


THE CONTRAST BETWEEN Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Dole isn't just Yale against Harvard, blonde against brunette, Democrat against Republican.

They also represent the yin and yang of American Protestantism.

In fact, the religious contrast between the two women says as much about Protestantism as it does about the irony that one denomination could have produced two deeply religious women who are as different as Clinton and Dole.

Not since the 1976 presidential campaign involving moderate Southern Baptist Rosalynn Carter and Episcopalian Betty Ford has America heard prospective first ladies speak so openly about their religious convictions.

But unlike Carter and Ford, Clinton and Dole grew up in the same denomination, products of devout Methodism.

From the broader perspective of American Protestantism, each woman is an icon; that is, each represents religious ideals, beliefs and characteristics shared by millions of other Americans.

Clinton is a "social gospel" type, a dangerously oversimplified term that might be used to describe anyone from a "meddling do-gooder" to a "bona fide social reformer."

Social gospel types promote the inevitable (some would say all-consuming) relationship between personal faith and social improvements.

Reformers are always controversial, and reformers who articulate the link between their personal faith and their determination to change society often become the targets of conservatives. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Jimmy Carter are examples.

Dole represents "evangelicalism," another dangerously oversimplified term often linked to fundamentalism. It can mean anything from "out to lunch on society's real needs" to "genuine preserver of social values."

Evangelicals are dedicated to holding firm to a core set of beliefs they feel should be protected - beliefs about the nature of Christ, the Bible and traditional or shared community values.

Starting in 1987, Dole began talking to audiences about her spiritual awakening, a gesture reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's openness on the presidential campaign trail in 1975.

Dole is interested and active in community, state and national improvements. Clinton can speak articulately about how her faith has influenced her personally.

But it is the degree of expression that matters, especially as evidenced by personal behavior. Dole is out there talking about her born-again experience. Clinton is reforming segments of the population by overhauling Arkansas schools, claiming unprecedented tenure in the field of child advocacy and attempting health care reform.

While some observers consider Clinton's and Dole's religious diversity a tribute to Methodism's tolerance of varied religious views and expressions of faith, others scratch their heads wondering just how it could happen.

In truth, Methodism does not hold the exclusive contract on producing spiritual diversity among its members. The Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Church of Christ denominations all make room for diversity of beliefs among their followers, while Southern Baptists and independent, evangelical denominations are likely to produce more homogenous and conservative political activists.

The contrast between Clinton and Dole may also speak volumes about the relationship between the laity and the leaders of America's mainline Protestant churches.

Those in the denominational hierarchy, who tend to be more liberal, open-minded and pluralistic, are likely to be drawn to Clinton.

People in the pews, however, who tend to be more conservative and, frankly, aren't so certain the church should be meddling in overhauling society anyway, are likely to prefer Dole.

Religion historian Dr. Martin Marty identifies three primary admonitions in the teachings of Methodist founder John Wesley that he says are foundational points for American Protestantism and shed light on the unique paths of Clinton and Dole.

A warmed, changed heart. Wesley stood in great contrast to the staid and proper Church of England of his own background when he preached the need for personal conversion. He was certain, in fact, that by being born again, a person could develop the strength and grace essential to serve both Christ and the world. Dole is squarely defined by this element.

Transform the world. This is the social gospel concept represented by Clinton, who early and often in her predominantly public life has quoted Wesley in his ferociously Type A predilection toward absolutes: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, and all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."

For their differences, Clinton and Dole share some important similarities. Both are well read in Scripture, articulate about grappling with spiritual gray areas, and both are clearly products of a denomination that has historically emphasized education, public leadership, accountability of action and a work ethic that has left both women described by the press as "an overachiever's overachiever." (An expression, incidentally, which applied to Wesley also.)

"Paradox" is the first and last modifier to describe human spirituality. While Clinton and Dole represent the poles of Protestantism, both women are also perfect examples of what Marty described as Wesley's third foundational admonition.

Organize. Organize your communities. Organize a church and then organize within that church. Create networks of support. This concept made Methodism extremely effective on the American frontier and also made it the largest denomination in the country for the first half of this century.

In fact, the term Methodist was actually an insulting term coined by observers who wryly noted that Wesley's followers were so pious and compulsive that they had a method for even the smallest task.

A modern-day version of that joke goes like this.

How many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?

They'll let you know after they form a committee to study the socket.

This humor - which pokes fun at the Methodist ability to organize and its nature to take tasks too seriously - is lost on most Americans.

What is not lost on America, however, is that Clinton's and Dole's abilities to organize might shape the political future of our country.

While social gospel types and evangelicals are typically wary of one another, and Americans are definitely wary of presidential elections, John Wesley's spirit must be watching all this with absolute fascination.

Cheryl Heckler-Feltz is author of "Heart and Soul of the Nation: How the Spirituality of Our First Ladies Influenced America" to be released in January by Doubleday Publishers. This article was distributed by New York Times Special Features.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad