Progressives can't trust Hillary Clinton: What's behind her bizarre alliance with the Christian right?

Clinton's mixed record on social and cultural issues might be explained by surprising views on faith and politics

Published April 25, 2015 1:15PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

As Hillary Clinton launched her 2016 presidential bid, there were rumblings of concern about how progressive she would really be on economic issues, particularly given her wealthy donor base. Seemingly conscious of these concerns, Clinton herself stressed a populist message in her video announcement, as well as in the form of her initial road-trip foray to Iowa. She even said that “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment."

John Nichols of The Nation is right to argue this is still too cautious, and Clinton has barely addressed the fight for a $15 minimum wage (outside of a vague tweet), which has already galvanized a growing movement for economic justice. But at least there are challenges being raised which hold out the prospect of moving Clinton in a more progressive direction.

In contrast, there other areas in which Clinton's politics leave much to be desired by progressives, which haven't gotten as much attention—or de facto acknowledgment from Clinton. Truthout columnist Joseph Mulkerin summarized the con side, covering foreign policy, the environment, civil liberties and the culture wars, in addition to the economy in "Five Reasons No Progressive Should Support Hillary Clinton."

Democracy Now! featured a spirited debate, with author/journalist Robert Scheer and socialist Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant (who spearheaded the $15 minimum-wage fight) taking the critical side, and journalists Joe Conason and Michelle Goldberg taking the “realist” position. Goldberg called Clinton “a kind of chameleon-like candidate,” which may usually seem negative, but, she said, “opens a potential opportunity for progressives... if they get organized...[to] exert pressure on her from the other direction.”

How to do this is a much bigger question—one that's already answered, somewhat, on economic issues. Grassroots campaigns like the Fight for 15 are well under way. But what about the rest?

Conveniently overlooked in the GOP's recent embarrassment over Indiana's “religious freedom restoration act” is Clinton's own deeply questionable history on the subject from the '90s, along with other culture-war issues, such as “Don't Ask/Don't Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act—all of which Clinton supported, along with then-President Bill Clinton.

Obviously Clinton has evolved—far beyond anyone on the GOP side—but this history remains troubling. It's even more worrying when one considers the broader question of how cultural wars and economic issues interact (as in Clintonian welfare reform), and how neoliberlism inevitably tilts to the right, regardless of sentiments that proponents may express.

If we look closely at the history of Clinton's relationship with three pieces of legislation affecting LGBT rights—Religious Freedom, Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), we see three wildly different patterns. First off, there are major differences between the Indiana law Pence signed and other RFRAs, going back to the federal RFRA that Clinton signed in 1993. As author Garrett Epps put it, in the Atlantic,  “1) businesses can use it against 2) civil-rights suits brought by individuals.”

The real problem, so far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, is her earlier support for a conceptually related bill, the “Workplace Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which the ACLU strongly opposed as a poorly drafted bill that would open the floodgates to all manner of discriminatory behavior. The potential troubles were well-known and clearly articulated. Nevertheless, Clinton supported it in tandem with religious conservative GOP Sens. Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum. Her strange alliances with religious conservatives in the Senate was explored in Jeff Sharlet's fascinating book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." We'll return to that book later.

The history of Clinton's relationship with “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” is dramatically different. Religion played virtually no role in the policy anywhere, and Clinton turned against it early and clearly.

Growing efforts to repeal the preexisting military ban on gays and lesbians in the military in the early 1990s led to the introduction of legislation by Sen. Brock Adams, D-Washington, and Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-California. That same year, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney responded to a question by Barney Frank—who knew that Cheney's press aide, Pete Williams (now of NBC News), was gay--by dismissing the idea gays posed a security risk as "a bit of an old chestnut" in congressional testimony. After that, several major newspapers endorsed ending the ban. During the Democratic primary the next year, all candidates supported ending the ban, and it did not become a campaign issue.

Nonetheless, there was a firestorm once Bill Clinton proposed changing the policy. But it was pure politics. U.S. allies with openly serving gays and lesbians already included Canada, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and Norway, and a Rand Corporation report for the National Defense Research Institute, "Sexual orientation and U.S. military personnel policy: options and assessment," laid to rest the most popular objections, based on investigations into these allied forces, as well as research into related kinds of organizations in the U.S., domestic fire and police departments.

Although Bill Clinton bowed to the political necessities, that appears to be as far as it went for either of the Clintons. Hillary went on record in December 1999, while still First Lady, but running for Senate in New York, as supporting repeal of DADT. “Gays and lesbians already serve with distinction in our nation's armed forces and should not face discrimination,'' she said in a statement reported by the New York Times, confirming reports from a private fundraiser. ''Fitness to serve should be based on an individual's conduct, not their sexual orientation.'' Rudy Giuliani, expected to be her opponent at the time, also opposed the ban. Hence, there were a minimum of conflicting forces and currents. End of story, more than 15 years ago.

When it comes to gay marriage, it's exactly the opposite. Clinton's record on gay marriage has been a complicated one, often to the point of deeply ambivalent silence, or sharp outbursts of surprising anger and frustration. Only after announcing her candidacy did she finally “evolve” completely on gay marriage, to the point of supporting marriage equality as a Constitutional right in advance of Supreme Court arguments later this month, as opposed to leaving it up to the states, as she had previously held.

Two years ago, in March 2013, Clinton announced her support for gay marriage in a video release. At the time, political scientist Paul Kengor, author of "God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life," wrote a column, “Hillary Clinton's evolution on gay marriage,” arguing it was “an honest transformation” not “political opportunism,” yet the story he told was long on talk about religion, and very short on talk about gay rights or the law. He tried to tell a story about Clinton's painfully slow evolution, from supporting the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed by her husband, which banned federal recognition of gay marriage and allowed states to ignore same-sex unions recognized by other states. Mostly, though, she did not evolve on DOMA—instead she came to support “domestic partnerships,” a bizarre form of second-class citizenship “rights.”

Here a consideration of legal and historical arguments would have been helpful—particularly since both Clintons are lawyers—but it's nowhere to be found. And for good reason: From the beginning, DOMA stood in obvious tension with the Constitution's “Full Faith and Credit Clause,” which states that “Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” Hence, ordinarily, if two people are married in Hawaii—where the possibility of gay marriage first seemed imminent circa 1995, then every other state must recognize their marriage as well.

There is what's known as the "public policy exception," which doesn't require a state to substitute a conflicting statute from another state for its own statute. But this logic was used to preserve laws forbidding interracial marriage, so it's repugnant, to say the least. So how did Clinton—a knowledgeable lawyer—either deal with or avoid thinking about that? Kengor doesn't say. He doesn't come anywhere close to even talking about legal concerns. That's how religion functions in his hands—as one giant red herring. And in that, he stands in for almost all of the political press.

In Kengor's account, Clinton “evolved” so that in 2003 she “introduced legislation to grant homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples,” except, of course, the right to marry. Several paragraphs later, he mentions, “As late as the 2008 presidential race, Clinton still opposed same-sex marriage.” Indeed, in 2007, Politico breathlessly reported that Clinton had repudiated DOMA—only to have to walk that back:

UPDATE: Clinton's spokesman points me to the text of her actual questionnaire (.pdf), in which she distances herself from a central plank of DOMA -- its bar on the federal recognition of same-sex marriages -- but not from the portion which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

In short, Clinton hadn't changed, and would not change, more than a smidgen, at best, until finally in 2013, a full decade after 2003, she came out for gay marriage—though not as a federal constitutional right. That didn't happen until just this past week.

Still, however tardy and halting her progress on marriage equality, Clinton has clearly moved in a progressive direction, just as she did much more swiftly and decisively on gays serving in the military. But what of the issue of “religious freedom” and the quagmire of entanglements with right-wing senators hinted at above?

I mentioned that the ACLU had opposed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act that Clinton co-sponsored. Here's a sample of some of what they had to say, in a letter to senators, about specific examples of  “some type of harm or potential harm to critical personal or civil rights” that were prevented under existing law, but could be allowed if WRFA became law:

Religious Minorities: The courts have rejected an array of claims by employees claiming a right to proselytize others, or otherwise engage in unwanted religious activities directed toward others, while at work....

A court held that an employer had no duty to accommodate an employee's need to write letters to both a supervisor and a subordinate at their homes severely criticizing their private lives and urging religious solutions....

Racial Minorities: In addition to the claim for an accommodation for the display of a swastika discussed in the religious minorities section above, Kaushal, 1999 WL 436585, a court rejected a claim by an employee in a private workplace to uncover and display his KKK tattoo of a hooded figure standing in front of a burning cross....

Women: Courts have rejected several claims made by male employees claiming that employers failed to accommodate their religious objections to working with women during overnight shifts because they could not sleep in the same quarters as women....

Gay Men and Lesbians: …. A court rejected a claim from a state-employed visiting nurse who, during a nursing visit to a gay man with AIDS and his partner, explained that they would only have salvation through her view of Christian beliefs and that God "doesn't like the homosexual lifestyle." The court held that accommodating the nurse's request to proselytize her patients was not reasonable because it would interfere with the state providing services in a religion-neutral manner.

It should be obvious that—whatever the excuses—the effect of this “religious freedom” law would simply be to empower religious bullies.  This makes a lot of sense for folks like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, but it's a lot harder to square with the public persona of Hillary Clinton. So what's going on?

To answer that, take a look at Sharlet and his book "The Family." Before the book came out, NBC did a segment (transcript here), based on Sharlet's reporting, which touched on Clinton. It was anchored in a discussion of Douglas Coe, who leads the Family:

Mr. JOSHUA GREEN ( I think in part through her involvement with The Fellowship's prayer group, she was able to meet a lot of these conservative Republican senators, get to know them on a one on one basis.

[ANDREA] MITCHELL: In her autobiography, Clinton describes Coe as "a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide" to many, who became a "source of strength and friendship" during her White House years, starting with a prayer lunch at Coe's Virginia retreat in 1993. Her official log showed he came to her West Wing office and introduced her to business leaders outside the White House.

In the NBC report, Clinton confidantes distanced her from Coe, according to Mitchell:

Asked about Coe's influence on Hillary Clinton, people close to her said "she does not consider him one of her leading spiritual advisers, has never contributed to his group, is not a member," and has never heard the sermons that we have cited. And they said he is not her minister.

But in an online discussion spun off from that report by author/journalist Frederick Clarkson, Sharlet explained a possible context for thinking about Clinton's complicated and often conservative record on social and cultural issues:

In my book, "The Family," I tell the story of how they helped create faith-based initiatives, going back to the late '60s, when they began experimenting with what would become "compassionate conservatism," through the '70s, when they helped create Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship -- which provided Bush the first test run of his project in Texas -- and the '80s, when Attorney General Ed Meese and then education official Gary Bauer collaborated with Coe on a welfare privatization project to the '90s when Family member John Ashcroft introduced the charitable choice laws -- with Hillary's help -- that made faith-based initiatives possible.

Regarding Hillary Clinton specifically, he added:

I argue that she's associated with an authoritarian religious group that's fundamentally anti-democratic. She is much to the left of the group -- I voted for her, as it happens -- but she still has some very conservative instincts rooted in her religious convictions. She's entitled to them, and we, the voters, are entitled to ask about them.

This is not a conspiracy theory. It doesn't work that way. Sharlet first wrote about Clinton's involvement with the Family (aka the Fellowship) in a Mother Jones article, co-authored with Kathryn Joyce in 2007. It contains this very telling vignette of how the Family operates in terms of politics, ideology and power:

The Fellowship isn't out to turn liberals into conservatives; rather, it convinces politicians they can transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics. Only the faith is always evangelical, and the politics always move rightward.

Who can object to personal relationships that “transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics”? Isn't this supposed to be the cure to all that ails our politics today? Or perhaps it's part of the cause?

Picking up on Sharlet's origin story about faith-based initiatives, Frederick Clarkson provided a comprehensive overview last fall, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” part of a special issue of The Public Eye magazine from Political Research Associates on “Neoliberalism: How the Right Is Remaking America” [pdf here]. While neoliberalism is often conceived of as a descendent of New Deal Liberalism, this issue paints a starkly different picture:

The privatization of public services has long been a feature of neoliberalism. It has also been part of the domestic and global agenda of the Christian Right, and more broadly, of conservative evangelicalism. The free-market agenda of the economic elite and the interests of elite evangelicalism found common cause and a historic opportunity during the Clinton administration [as “Charitable Choice”]. It is a relationship that continues to this day under the rubric of the Faith-Based Initiative.

While Clarkson noted that Bill Clinton explicitly limited the impact of “Charitable Choice” with a signing statement to curb “religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,” the theocrat's long-term thinking was always at least several steps ahead. "The intentions of backers varied, as they still do, but the effect has been to begin to privatize government-funded services, and in particular to increase the capacity of conservative Christian institutions to provide such services in the U.S. and around the world,” Clarkson wrote. It's the religious right that is shaping the whole framework of discussion and debate:

As David Kuo, an aide to Sen. Ashcroft and later the Deputy Director of the original White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Bush administration, recounts, they picked the name “Charitable Choice” because it sounded innocuous. “It didn’t draw attention to anything religious,” he recalled:

Charitable choice was something anyone could support and few people could justify voting against. The name just worked.

It did not lead to further legislation, but continued to expand via executive orders under both Bush and Obama, with an extremely curious set of policy developments:

These programs have taken money out of existing, primarily social service programs and redirected the funds to religious agencies. But since many of the conservative Christian bodies that wanted to receive Faith-Based Initiative funds lacked the institutional capacity and experience to be eligible, there was an early emphasis on training, capacity building, and technical assistance so that groups that wanted to become eligible could be shoehorned in.

This redirection of resources also tended to politically empower religious organizations and leaders, such as prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose economic view tends toward laissez-faire neoliberalism. Warren’s popularity has helped in recent years to strengthen the political constituency for free-market policies.

Religious charities are as old as the hills, but this money was going to groups with no history of such works—which is why they needed so much government assistance via executive order, just to become eligible for government assistance under law. It all makes perfect sense, once you realize the Family's role in getting the whole scam started.

When Obama ran for president, he promised to clean things up, Clarkson notes, but it didn't turn out that way, as revealed in a 2014 investigation by Andy Kopsa in The Nation, "Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train.” It found that “Despite the president’s promise to cut funding to discredited HIV and pregnancy prevention programs, taxpayer dollars are still bankrolling anti-gay, anti-choice conservative religious groups.”

Given Hillary Clinton's long-standing ties with the Family, will anything change? In the end, Clarkson concluded:

It should be a matter for public debate that political appointees in both parties are not only diverting federal funds to pursue political agendas well beyond the intent of Congress but also are deepening the government’s reliance on religious institutions as service providers. These trends do not seem to be aberrations and glitches in a fresh approach to the delivery of government services so much as a transpartisan program of neoliberal transformation of our government’s functions at all levels.

This neoliberal transformation of government functions stands in stark contrast to Clinton's evolution on various LBGT rights issues. The question is not “How fast did Clinton evolve?” or “Was she a leader when it counted most?” It's not a question of degree, it's a question of fundamental direction. The question is “Where is she taking us? And why?” It's not just for her, obviously. It's a question for the entire political establishment around her. And it needs to be asked—loudly--if it's ever to be answered at all.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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