Hillary Clinton, Democrats Make a Public Shift Toward “God-Talk”

The crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month during an address by the Rev. William J. Barber II. “We must shock this nation with the power of love,” he told the delegates. (Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times)
The crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month during an address by the Rev. William J. Barber II. “We must shock this nation with the power of love,” he told the delegates. (Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Four months ago, as Hillary Clinton turned her attention from the Democratic primary toward a fall race against Donald J. Trump, her campaign released a commercial titled “Love and Kindness.”

Against the soundtrack of a soulful ballad, the advertisement showed Mrs. Clinton in a series of warm embraces, including one with a grieving mother. The onscreen text included the phrase “do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, for all the people we can.”

Through secular eyes, the advertisement linked Mrs. Clinton to some resolutely uncontroversial concepts — hope, kindness, love, good. In doing so, it sought to soften the perception that she is untrustworthy and unlikable.

From a theological viewpoint, however, the commercial communicated in profound and coded ways. The music evoked a cappella gospel quartets. The text echoed an axiom of the Methodist Church, Mrs. Clinton’s lifelong denomination. The very title of the spot could well have been “Agape and Chesed.”

“Agape” is the Greek word for the Christian ideal of “the love of God operating in the human heart,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it. And “chesed” is the Hebrew term for goodness or mercy, which the first full English translation of the Bible, made by Myles Coverdale in 1535, rendered as “lovingkindness.”

The religious resonances typify a strain of spiritual language that has been a part of Mrs. Clinton’s general election campaign, reaching its apogee at the Democratic National Convention.

During his speech to the Democratic convention, for instance, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey declared, “We are called to be a nation of love.” The Rev. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister who has led the “Moral Mondays” civil rights protests in North Carolina, told the delegates, “We must shock this nation with the power of love.” Senator Tim Kaine, the vice-presidential candidate, called his Catholic faith “a North Star for orienting my life” toward the “fight for social justice.” One of the most ubiquitous placards on the convention floor featured the religiously inflected pun: “Love Trumps Hate.”

This repeated adoption of God-talk by liberals signals a shift from the rhetorical norms of the last 40 years in presidential politics. Beginning with the prominent role of the group Moral Majority in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, conservative Republicans were the ones linking their political positions to Christian principles. In mobilizing their own constituency, Democrats deplored the specter of religious influence on public policy.

Now those roles have become more contested. Mr. Trump has received some high-level evangelical endorsements and has told conservative pastors in Florida that his presidency would preserve “religious liberty” and reverse what he called a government-enforced muzzling of Christians. He captured the Republican nomination in part by carrying a plurality of evangelical voters but has alienated a large portion of theologically conservative Roman Catholics and Mormons who are normally reliable elements in the Republican base.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, has given voice to the religious principle of love — an explicitly Christian concept that is espoused by most monotheistic faiths — as the root of liberal policies.

“It was extraordinary during the convention to hear this discussed explicitly and implicitly,” said the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and the author of a forthcoming book about the scriptural interplay of love and justice.

“Most of America views love in a very sentimental capacity,” Dr. Moss said. “But the way God loves us — agape — is not about me liking someone or me feeling good about someone, but about God making a deep demand” on humans to seek the kind of equitable society that Dr. King termed “the beloved community.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Samuel G. Freedman

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