Hillary’s “Family”


I’ve occasionally been asked why I don’t seem to go after Hillary with the same frequency or consistency as Obama. The primary answer is that as far as I’m concerned, Hillary is a foregone conclusion. There’s no more need to cover her than to cover Bill Richardson: she isn’t going to win.

The second reason is pointlessness. Hillaryites refuse to listen to anything negative about her, especially if it happens to be true. Trying to tell a Hillaryite something as obvious as the fact that she’s a conservative is like trying to convince a concrete block to do jumping jacks.

But the third reason is the one that concerns me today: everybody else (non-Hillaryites) go after her. When you criticize Hillary, you join a brigade from all sides of the spectrum doing likewise. It’s a crowded field. Still, occasionally there’s a reason: something important is being ignored. Today I was reminded of that something by Talk to Action’s Fred Clarkson.

In the wake of the controversy over Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Barbara Erenreich, writing at The Nation, thinks it is only fair and reasonable to ask Hillary Clinton about her relationship with Doug Coe, the controversial leader of The Family, and for that matter, The Family itself.

Barbara’s right, as usual. It’s more than fair, it’s about time. Jeff Sharlet wrote about that relationship in Mother Jones last fall. I remember intending to write about it then but got sidetracked by something else. Given the attacks on BO and Hillary’s sainthood in the eyes of too many Democrats, it’s time this got more of the attention it deserves.

The usual critical take on Hillary – and it’s accurate as far as it goes – is that she’s power-hungry, a bit of a Mitt Romney-type who will say anything to get elected. Generally, that’s probably true but as Sharlet points out in MJ, there’s more going on than that.

Clinton’s God talk is more complicated—and more deeply rooted—than either fans or foes would have it, a revelation not just of her determination to out-Jesus the gop, but of the powerful religious strand in her own politics. Over the past year, we’ve interviewed dozens of Clinton’s friends, mentors, and pastors about her faith, her politics, and how each shapes the other. And while media reports tend to characterize Clinton’s subtle recalibration of tone and style as part of the Democrats’ broader move to recapture the terrain of “moral values,” those who know her say there’s far more to it than that.

Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection. “A lot of evangelicals would see that as just cynical exploitation,” says the Reverend Rob Schenck, a former leader of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who now ministers to decision makers in Washington. “I don’t….there is a real good that is infected in people when they are around Jesus talk, and open Bibles, and prayer.”

A lot of political good, the critics would respond. But there’s a weight of personal history here. As far back as high school, Hillary was flirting with conservatism and right-wing religion as the result of her friendship with a 30-yr-old minister named Don Jones.

Under Jones’ mentorship, Clinton learned about Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich—thinkers whom liberals consider their own, but whom young Hillary Rodham encountered as theological conservatives. The Niebuhr she studied was a cold warrior, dismissive of the progressive politics of his earlier writing. “He’d thought that once we were unionized, the kingdom of God would be ushered in,” Jones explains. “But the effect of those two world wars and the violence that they produced shook his faith in liberal theology. He came to believe that the achievement of justice meant a clear understanding of the limitations of the human condition.” Tillich, whose sermon on grace Clinton turned to during the Lewinsky scandal, today enjoys a following among conservatives for revising the social gospel—the notion that Christians are to improve humanity’s lot here on earth by fighting poverty, inequality, and exploitation—to emphasize individual redemption instead of activism.

Niebuhr and Tillich’s combination of aggressiveness in foreign affairs and limited domestic ambition naturally led Clinton toward the gop. She was a Goldwater Girl who, under the tutelage of her high school history teacher Paul Carlson (whom Jones describes as “to the right of the John Birchers”), attended biweekly anticommunist meetings and later served as president of Wellesley’s Young Republicans chapter. Out of step with the era’s radicalism, Clinton wrote Jones from college, lamenting that her fellow students didn’t believe that one could be “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.” To Jones, this question indicated that Clinton shared Niebuhr’s notion of Christians needing to have “a dark enough view of life that they can be realistic about what’s possible.”

She may have lamented her compadres‘ lack of belief but it’s understandable given that Hillary was forcing a reconciliation between two opposing belief sets, thus violating each and proving pretty convincingly that she didn’t understand either. Hillary, to put it bluntly, wanted it all, iow she was a “compassionate conservative” long before Karl Rove came along to build a campaign on that lie. The difference between them, of course, is that Karl knew it was a lie. Hillary is so dumb she believes it to be possible to this day despite all available evidence to the contrary. Including her own husband’s version.

Eessentially what “compassionate conservatives” end up doing is pursuing conservative agendas while talking like compassionate liberals. Bill would make us feel like he had great empathy for the poor just before he “reformed” welfare and threw many of them off the rolls to get along as best they could. He portrayed NAFTA as a boon for US workers even as it helped drain working class jobs from the country. He would give speeches about protecting the working poor from scam artists and corporate skullduggery and then promote policies and laws that protected corporations from being accountable for scams and skullduggery.

If you understand Hillary’s determination to squeeze a round peg into a square hole despite repeated warnings that one of them would have to give, then you have to ask which she preferred to bring into reality. Sharlet notes:

When Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian “cell” whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat.

Clinton’s prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or “the Family”), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to “spiritual war” on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship’s only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has “made a fetish of being invisible,” former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God’s plan.

Sharlet exposed The Family back in January or ’04, and I wrote about it then in a post titled “Christian Theocrats Exposed“. The Family turned out to consist of such ultraconservative theocrats and hard-line GOP stalwarts as Jim DeMint and James Inhofe – the guy who thinks the Bible should replace science textbooks and that history books need to be rewritten so they line up with theocratic goals (Jefferson was a right-wing evangelical theocrat, according to Inhofe).

Those are the people Hillary has been hanging around with – voluntarily – for the past 16 yrs: elitist right-wing Xtian theocrats.

Clinton declined our requests for an interview about her faith, but in Living History, she describes her first encounter with Fellowship leader Doug Coe at a 1993 lunch with her prayer cell at the Cedars, the Fellowship’s majestic estate on the Potomac. Coe, she writes, “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.”

The Fellowship’s ideas are essentially a blend of Calvinism and Norman Vincent Peale, the 1960s preacher of positive thinking. It’s a cheery faith in the “elect” chosen by a single voter—God—and a devotion to Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers….The powers that be are ordained of God.” Or, as Coe has put it, “we work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t.”

(emphasis added)

You can understand why a supposedly liberal Democratic presidential nominee might not want to grant an interview about her long association with a far-right conservative evangelical/theocratic prayer group. Not exactly the image she’d like to present, eh?

But if you think about it you’ll understand how the flow went. It’s simply the opposite of what we’ve always thought it was. Instead of Hillary being a liberal who played conservative for power, she’s a conservative playing liberal, a Goldwater right-winger who found the opportunity to gain power in pretending to be a Kennedy-style left-winger.

It fits. She’s a member of the financial elite who went to Wellesley College to become a corporate lawyer. She’s never been liberal, let alone progressive. She understands and values money and the people who make it. That she isn’t already a Republican is a matter of timing and pure, unadulterated ambition. No wonder it was so easy for Bill to steal GOP values – they’re the ones he and Hillary have believed all along: elitist corporate Xtian values.

The Family, from that angle, was an inevitable power connection. But 16 years surrounded by her enemies is more than ambition. It’s belief.

Personally, I don’t want her in a position to prove it.

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4 responses to “Hillary’s “Family”

  1. I still think Senator Clinton will nonetheless be the nominee. Break out your calculator and hit the fuzzy math button. We’ll all be scratching our heads over how it happened, but I’m not as confident as you that it’s over for Clinton. Prior to McCain’s poor performance early in the primaries, I had suspected that this race might be set up to be between Clinton and McCain. He was magically revived… The convention could be very interesting; fistfights? I guess we’ll see.

  2. I suppose I shouldn’t be so all-fired certain but darn it, I don’t see how Hillary can pull her stumbling campaign out of the BO fire. If she is the nominee after all, I will have to agree that there’s been dirty work at the crossroads. Either that or Democratic delegates have completely lost the thread of what it means to be a Democrat. The party leadership clearly has, but it seems to me the base is clinging to those old, outworn Dem values like fairness, equality, and generosity toward those less fortunate than your average Fortune 500 CEO.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

  3. I hope you’re right. Why do you think Senator Clinton is still in the race if she truly can’t win? Simple tenacity? I know she’s not that far behind, but numbers are numbers.

  4. Ambition, chiefly. The CW is that she’s counting on the superdelegates – party hacks the DLC machinery promised to her months ago – to go against the votes in their own states’ primaries to back her instead of Obama at the convention. Obama’s people and a lot of leftie blogs are already trying to pressure them to go against their promise to Hillary and obey the mandate of the voters but nobody seems to have any idea what they’ll actually do when push comes to shove.

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