Soulful Matters

Hillary Clinton: In the middle of a crucial and bitterly fought political season, the First Lady speaks exclusively with NEWSWEEK'S Religion Editor about her spiritual life.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been called many things since she became the nation's First Lady. To her fiercest critics she is a radical feminist; to her most ardent admirers she is a disciplined political operative, an eloquent advocate who needs no notes when speaking. In softer profile, Mrs. Clinton comes across as a well-organized working mother and her husband's closest confidant. But long before she was a Democrat, a lawyer, or a Clinton, Hillary Rodham was a Methodist. And that, say those who know her now as well as those who knew her when, is the way the First Lady is best understood. She thinks like a Methodist, talks like a Methodist and wants to reform society just like a well-Sunday-schooled Methodist churchwoman should. ""I am,'' she told Newsweek in an exclusive interview at the White House last week, ""an old-fashioned Methodist.''

In any other place, from almost any other woman, such an admission would be insignificant. Americans want their First Family to be religious, but not strongly so. As Ronald Reagan understood -- and Jimmy Carter painfully learned -- vague belief firmly held is the most appropriate White House religion. Politicians may not care and the media may scoff, but the Clintons are perhaps the most openly religious First Couple this century has seen. The president is a hymn-humming, sermon-loving, liberal Southern Baptist who studied under the Jesuits at Georgetown and feels at home in any kind of pew. But Mrs. Clinton is cut from old, less expressive Methodist stock, and these days she feels like a battered woman. Her public role has diminished, and she's being blamed for the failure of health-care reform in a bitter political season. Meanwhile, evangels of the religious right scorn her as a Mary Magdalene, while pundits in the secular press ridicule her spirituality as flaky New Age blather. All this has taught her a ""great deal of sympathy'' for Christian fundamentalists. Like them, she believes she has to prove that she isn't a figment of other people's prejudices.

Indeed, at one point in the conversation, the First Lady even submitted to a brief examination of her faith:

""Do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

""Yes.''

""The atoning death of Jesus?''

""Yes.''

""The resurrection of Christ?'

""Yes.''

The interview was conducted in the Map Room around a makeshift folding table that looked like it had just been cleared of dishes. The First Lady, dressed in black, glanced down often at her hands. For three months Newsweek had sought an interview about her religious faith and her aides were fearful that no matter what she said, Mrs. Clinton would be accused of trying to manipulate her public image. She even hesitated to name her favorite Bible passages, convinced she'd be misunderstood: ""If I quote a Bible Scripture, people are always looking for the hidden meaning in it'' (page 25). Or, worse, that her words might be turned against her in the latest Rush to judgment.

Can this Hillary Clinton be real? Though conservatives may doubt her religious convictions, and liberals wish them away, Hillary Rodham Clinton is as pious as she is political. Methodism, for her, is not just a church but an extended family of faith that defines her horizons. Through her father's family, she can trace her roots back via her grandparents' stories to early-19th-century England and Wales -- close to the beginnings of the original Methodist movement. Her mother taught Sunday school. Though her father was seldom seen at First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill., where young Hillary grew up, she vividly recalls that ""he said his prayers kneeling by his bed every night of his life, until he had [his] stroke.''

The First Lady is a Methodist by choice as well as by chance. Of the three Rodham children, only Hillary continued to attend Sunday services as an adolescent. ""She's really a self-churched woman,'' says the Rev. Donald Jones, her former youth minister, who developed his privileged suburban students' social consciences by taking them to visit migrant workers' children. More than other Protestants, Methodists are still imbued with the turn-of-the-century social gospel, which holds that Christians have been commissioned to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

As a bright, well-educated woman growing up in the turbulent '60s, Hillary Rodham defied that generation's rebellious stereotype. At Wellesley, she continued to attend church, joined the interdenominational chapel society and took a year of required Bible study -- an experience, she says, ""I'm very grateful for.'' She also read Motive, a now defunct magazine for college-age Methodists. ""I still have every issue they sent me,'' Mrs. Clinton says. But the issue she remembers best contained an article by a Methodist theologian, Carl Oglesby, called ""Change or Containment.'' ""It was the first thing I had ever read that challenged the Vietnam War,'' Mrs. Clingon recalls. Partly because of that war, she switched from being a Goldwater Republican to a McGovern Democrat. But she remained a devout Methodist. Although the United Methodist Church had by then dropped most of its traditional taboos against alcohol and dancing, Hillary was conservative in her social habits. In a letter to Jones from college, she wrote that she was having ""as much fun as any good Methodist can.'' Even today, says Jones, ""when Hillary talks it sounds like it comes out of a Methodist Sunday-school lesson.''

That should be no surprise. In Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton taught Methodist Sunday school. She also attended church regularly and, in the Methodist tradition of favoring lay preachers, she spoke often at church gatherings on ""Why I am a United Methodist.'' Even her campaign to reform Arkansas's public schools, says the Rev. Clint Burleson, her former pastor in Little Rock, was ""grounded in Methodist social concerns. That's who Hillary is. She's not a woman who would be in harmony with [Methodism's conservative] evangelical movement.''

Perhaps, but after two years in the White House, Mrs. Clinton is showing another side of her Methodist self. The religious books she reads are mostly by popular evangelical and spiritual-guidance authors, like Tony Campolo, Father Henri Nouwen and the Rev. Gordon MacDonald, and the only religious magazine she sees these busy days is Christianity Today, an evangelical weekly. She says she also keeps a copy of ""The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church'' in her private quarters, along with the Bible. The two volumes reflect her search for religious balance. ""I think that the Methodist Church, for a period of time, became too socially concerned,'' she says, ""too involved in the social gospel, and did not pay enough attention to questions of personal salvation and individual faith. It is, for me, both a question of grace and of personal commitment.''

In the white house family quar-ters, the ethos is more Methodist than Baptist. A telltale example: liquor is served -- something a staunch Southern Baptist would hesitate to do. But you have to ask for it, which is the moderate Methodist way. On Sundays, it's a Methodist, not a Baptist, church the First Family most often attends. And like her mother, 14-year-old Chelsea Clinton is being raised a Methodist.

The Methodist ethos extends to politics as well. The First Lady's speech in April 1993 calling for ""remodeling society by redefining what it means to be a human in the 20th century'' may have startled some listeners, but its ambitious optimism was fully consonant with the Methodists' liberal social creed. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton's many speeches defending the universal health-care coverage resonated with the moral rhetoric of resolutions adopted by the church's governing General Conference. Her favorite adjective is a Methodist byword: inclusive. ""Hillary views the world through a Methodist lens,'' says the Reverend Jones, who is still a welcome guest at the White House. ""And we Methodists,'' he adds wryly, ""know what's good for you.''

If the Kennedy era was Camelot and the Reagan White House a ranchero on the Potomac, the Clinton presidency -- in the figure of its formidable First Lady -- is Washington's Methodist Moment. And Methodists have waited a long time for that moment to arrive. With more members (8.8 million) than the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and American Baptists combined, the United Methodists dominate mainline American Protestantism and its chief ecumenical agency, the National Council of Churches. But the last time the Methodists or the mainline had a political friend in the White House was during the Great Society phase of the Johnson administration. Jimmy Carter confided mostly in fellow Southern Baptists. The Reagan-Bush administrations assiduously courted the emergent religious right -- and ignored what they regarded as the religious left, as represented by the mainline churches' liberal Washington lobby. Significantly, that lobby is housed on Capitol Hill in the Methodist Building.

Despite what some critics believe, the nation's First Lady is not markedly feminist in her religion. She thinks abortion is ""wrong,'' but, like her husband, she says, ""I don't think it should be criminalized.'' She does not follow feminist theology and seems unaware of the upheaval its most radical exponents have created among Methodists in the name of greater inclusiveness.

As long as they are in the White House, the First Family has elected to worship at Foundry United Methodist Church, less than a mile away. There they find spiritual support from pastor J. Philip Wogaman, a liberal social-ethics professor who tries, he says, to be ""prophetic'' in his sermons ""without embarrassing the president.'' Generally the First Family slips into the same pew, three rows down from the front off the right center aisle. It's a mixed congregation in a mixed urban neighborhood. As Wogaman proudly points out, young singles and married couples usually sit up front on the far left, gays prefer the far right, African-Americans congregate in the center and older white congregants -- including Senate Republican leader Robert Dole and his wife, Elizabeth -- favor the sections near the door. Very inclusive. Very Methodist. Very Hillary Rodham Clinton.

PHOTO: Rev. Donald Jones, former youth minister

PHOTO: Reverend Wogaman, Foundry United Methodist Church

PHOTO: On the same page: Singing hymns in the Little Rock in 1978

PHOTO: "A question of grace and personal commitment': Speaking in August at a health-care rally

In an hourlong interview at the White House with Newsweek's Kenneth L. Woodward, Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke frankly about her religious beliefs and habits. She was wary, yet eager to clarify her spiritual and moral convictions. Excerpts:

On rare occasions. But I have continuing contact and conversations with women both here and in Arkansas who are part of an extended prayer or Bible-study group for me. I talk with them, or they come here and visit with me. I have a group of friends who are very faithful in their intercessory prayer for the president and me.

I do. I do. And not only do I believe in it, I think there is increasing evidence of it. There is an interesting hospital study in which patients of comparable medical condition were prayed for and prayers were, apparently, the only difference that could be discovered between how the patients were treated.

At this point I am spending a lot of time thinking about the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly the Beatitudes, but really Matthew 5, 6 and 7. Those three chapters I think are just filled with challenge and it's very hard to read and for me to fully understand. Or the whole Book of James -- because I, being a Methodist, am big on deeds as well as words.

I'm sort of agnostic when it comes to inclusive language. I've always thought that language was so inadequate to express the mystery and power of God. I mean, use He, use She -- none of us are capable of really describing who God is.

I think God is both . . . I think God is omnipotent and omniscient. I think that because of the fact that I am a child of my tradition and have developed as I have over time, I think of God more in a Father sense. But that's not exclusive to me. I don't discount characteristics and virtues of the feminine by saying and thinking that. But that is the tradition I grew up in and it is accessible to me, so I'm more likely to rely on it.

Oh, yes.

That's exactly right . . . The secular press doesn't know how to talk about religion except in stereotypes. I think they've done a great disservice to many people who are in what is loosely called the religious right. I think the people who are searching for meaning and order in their lives are naturally going to be trying to have a theology that gives them answers to difficult questions posed by modern times. I have a great deal of sympathy for that, and I think it is unfair to the great number of people who identify themselves in such ways -- either evangelicals or fundamentalists -- to stereotype them. I think some of their leaders are, as pharisees have always been, willing to manipulate people for their own particular purposes.

One of the differences I have with some of the denominations is the idea that one's Christianity is sealed at the moment that you accept Christ as your Savior and become in whatever ways are open to you a practicing Christian. I think that is a never-ending challenge. And I believe that every day I fall short of what I should be achieving.

Well, I talked with her after the speech. And we are going to help her establish a center here.

No, I'm not comfortable with that. I would much prefer that every child be given appropriate guidance and discipline so that that was never an issue. But I also think that it is a problem that has to be addressed in certain parts of the country where, for whatever reasons, family and religion have failed to do their jobs.