WASHINGTON – This is the inversion election, a contest in which so many of our familiar mental categories have been turned upside down.
This year, it’s the Republican presidential candidate who says the United States isn’t great anymore and the Democrat who insists it is. The Republican says that the former KGB agent now presiding over Russia is a better leader than the president of the United States. The Democrat condemns him for it.
But last week reminded us that there is another role reversal in this election. There is one candidate who is authentically religious, who has thought seriously about what the Scriptures teach, and whose own view of the world was changed radically by her engagement with faith. Her name is Hillary Clinton.
Yes, I flinched when I typed that word “authentically.” How can we know whose faith is authentic or truly understand someone else’s relationship to God? It’s hard enough for most of us to come to terms honestly with our own relationship to the Almighty.
Moreover, I acknowledge that I bring a series of predispositions to my case here, beginning with the most basic: my conviction that Clinton is fit to be president and Donald Trump is not. More importantly in this context, her journey in wrestling with the relationship between religious commitment and political action was remarkably similar to my own.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a key influence on both of us. She re-examined many of her assumptions when she heard him speak. I did the same after I chose a collection of his sermons, “Strength to Love,” for a book report in a class at my Catholic high school. I grew up in a conservative family, as Clinton did, and King challenged me – as he did her and millions of other Americans – to embrace a Christian’s obligation to struggle for social and racial justice.
So let me be more specific about my definition of authenticity. It focuses on passages from the letter of James that Clinton cited in her speech last Thursday to the predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention. James suggests that the best measure of authenticity is whether your faith affects how you think and what you do. Clinton’s religious views, I’d argue, are organically connected to many of the choices she has made in her life.
“The Scripture tells us that faith without works is dead,” she said. “The Epistle of James tells us we cannot just be hearers of the Word, we must be doers.” Clinton explained that she embraced “an activist social justice faith, a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-your-hands-dirty faith.”
This is not the only kind of Christianity, and it would be sinfully arrogant to doubt the authenticity of the beliefs of more conservative Christians whose deepest commitments lead them to conclusions quite different from Clinton’s on issues such as gay marriage or abortion. In American history, Christians have argued passionately among themselves over what Scripture and tradition teach about a wide range of public questions, including slavery.
What I do doubt is the depth of the conviction of politicians whose religious commitments seem to have little connection to their lives. They paint themselves as religious by either pushing the social conservatives’ hot buttons or, as Trump did Friday at the Values Voter Summit, appealing to their sense of victimhood. He spoke about religious liberty and criticized a media culture that “mocks and demeans people of faith.”
Conservative religious people have every right to test liberal believers by their willingness to defend the role of faith in our public square. But liberal believers have a comparable right to test conservatives by whether what the Gospel teaches about love, justice and our obligation to the poor has any relationship to their public actions and the policies they promote.
Another test is humility, a hard virtue to come by in an election campaign. Thus did Clinton tell her Baptist audience that “we’re not asked to love each other, not urged or requested. We are commanded to love. Indeed, Jesus made it his greatest commandment. When I used to teach the occasional Sunday school class, I often taught on that lesson. That’s a hard commandment to obey. Some days it’s really hard for me.”
Clinton also spoke of “the awesome responsibilities of power and the frailties of human action.” I do prefer politicians who follow Kierkegaard’s lead in approaching the burdens of governing with a certain amount of “fear and trembling.” I see at least some of that spirit in Clinton. I wish I could find it in Trump.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.