After trading jokes with her Republican rival, Donald Trump, at the Al Smith dinner in New York, Clinton got serious, praising her Catholic hosts and Pope Francis’ fights against climate change and inequality.
“I’m not Catholic. I’m a Methodist,” Clinton said
. “But one of the things that we share is the belief that in order to achieve salvation we need both faith and good works.”
That’s only half-true. Neither the United Methodist Church nor the Catholic Church teach that believers can work their way into heaven. Good deeds are important, both churches agree, but God’s grace is freely given — and the only means of salvation.
Clinton likely knows this. She’s correctly stated the doctrine before, including at a church service
in Washington last year.
Maybe her salvation stumble was the work of a sloppy speechwriter — or perhaps, with apologies to Freud, it was a Pelagian slip. (Pelagius was a monk accused of teaching the heresy that humans could earn their own salvation.) Either way, Clinton’s remark revealed a deep strain in her religious thought: There are no freeloaders in heaven.
“She didn’t believe it was how high you jumped for joy in church,” said the Rev. Ed Matthews, Clinton’s pastor when she lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1990s, “but what you did when you came down.”
The conventional Washington wisdom holds that Clinton is reluctant to talk about her faith, which is partly true. She doesn’t often divulge details about her private piety, even while hinting that prayer and pastoral counseling have led her to consequential decisions, such as remaining with her husband, Bill, after the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.
But during her three decades in politics, Clinton has been quite willing to talk about how her work has been inspired by her Methodist faith. She traces some of her political positions, particularly concerning children and the poor, directly to Christ’s commandment to care for “the least of these.”
Speaking to an assembly of Methodist women
in 2014, Clinton cited the Gospel story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd.
“He was teaching about the responsibility we all share, to step up and serve the community, especially to help those with the greatest need and the fewest resources,” Clinton said.
Since then, the Democratic nominee has adopted a Methodist mantra
as her unofficial campaign slogan: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as you ever can.” (The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests to interview the candidate.)
Despite these public testimonies, less than 50% of Americans say Clinton is “very” or even “somewhat” religious, according to the Pew Research Center.
A separate survey, by the Public Religion Research Institute
, reveals stark religious and partisan divides in how Americans view the presidential nominees’ faith. Nearly 80% of black Protestants, a traditional Democratic constituency, say Clinton has stronger religious beliefs than Trump; just 28% of white evangelicals, who lean heavily Republican, agree.